Snowpiercer

John Hurt, Chris Evans and Jamie Bell in Snowpiercer

 

That sound? The plane taking off from LAX taking a great Asian director back home, sobbing with disappointment. It happened to John Woo, who did at least manage to crank out Face/Off, but his sad run of Hollywood films include Windtalkers, Mission: Impossible II and Hard Target. To the Pang brothers too, whose The Eye was one of the attention-grabbers of 2002. They came to Hollywood, made The Messengers for Sam Raimi, then put their tail between their legs and went home.

So what about the latest Asian import, the great South Korean director Bong Joon Ho, whose uniquely flavoured movies include Memories of Murder, a killer-thriller-whodunit whose cops get their man more by brutality and naked luck than sleuthing. Or The Host, a monster movie in which the hero doesn’t so much step forward, as find that everyone else has taken a step back. How is Mr Bong going to go down in a town where irony is a dish best served not at all?

The answer is Snowpiercer, an adaptation of the 1982 cult French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, a post-apocalyptic thriller set on board a train of 1,001 carriages that has been travelling non-stop for 17 years through a world that is entirely frozen. Outside, the passengers are told, everything is extinct. Inside, the train is run on feudal Orwellian lines, with the bosses at the front, the proles at the back, and a massive system of repression, propaganda and eventism keeping everyone, but mostly the proles, on-message.

The uneasy equilibrium is disrupted when Curtis (Chris Evans) and sidekick Edgar (Jamie Bell), emboldened by ragged spiritual mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) to make a break for the front of the train and either overthrow the Big Brother-style leader Wilford (Ed Harris) or convince him at least of the need for a little more gravy down the back end.

Post-apocalypse, little men against a corrupt leader, steampunk technology, a quest: we’ve seen films like this a lot over the decades, often starring Arnie or Will Smith or Tom Cruise, films that pause to crack a wry one-liner but are otherwise propulsive, fairly humourless and full of action and dead bodies.

The first sign that Bong isn’t quite making that sort of film comes early on, with the arrival of Mason (Tilda Swinton), one of Wilford’s henchpeople, who has come down from the front to the back to the train – and looks very unhappy about it too – to nip rebellion in the bud. In a convoluted speech Mason contemptuously tells the rear-dwellers that they should be happy with their lot, that everyone has their role and, pushing an ill-chosen metaphor beyond breaking point, that “I am the hat; you are the shoe”, all this while a miscreant is having his arm frozen off by exposure to the outside elements, pour encourager les autres. It’s the sort of scene you can imagine being in Total Recall, except that screenwriters Kelly Masterson and Bong Joon Ho have other ideas: Swinton comes equipped with a comic northern English accent, a face full of big teeth and her coat is constantly slipping off her shoulders.

The whole film is like this – familiar sci-fi tropes undermined by Bong’s oblique strategies.

I’m not going to explain the film’s entire plot, except to say that Curtis, Edgar, their ragged-trousered team and a couple of South Koreans (Song Kang-ho, Ko Ah-sung) they’ve woken from cryo-sleep do indeed make a dash for the front, each carriage a marvel of Wachowski-esque set design (one’s a classroom teaching elite kids, another is a vast glass house hydroponically growing crops, another is a bespoke tailor’s, another a dentist, a nightclub, a cocktail bar), through a train whose metaphorical purpose couldn’t be made more explicit if the word “allegory” were flashing up on screen every few minutes.

It is a fantastic, fabulous, ludicrous and lovely film to look at, and as Curtis and crew battle forwards they are assailed by bullets, bombs and even a medieval axe attack in one entirely blacked-out carriage. But one great, breathtaking and fanatically detailed scene followed by another doesn’t necessarily equal a great film. And that’s the case here. Partly this is Evans’s fault – he’s likeable but lacks heroic charisma. But mostly it’s because I think Bong wanted it that way. For example, in the middle of the medieval axe fight the combatants pause to wish each other a happy new year. Bong is deliberately subverting the heroic action blockbuster with little human touches (the slipping coat) at almost every turn.

But this deviously ironic film insisting on nuance where the genre generally goes for broad brush isn’t helped – is undermined, in fact – by its blunderbuss approach to satire. In particular the final long rambling “explains it all” speech by Wilford that more or less throws away the claims to specialness that the film has carefully wrought. Is this Bong’s doing? Masterson’s? The studio’s?

Snowpiercer isn’t boring, and there’s really nothing to touch it for production design and world-building. File it next to the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas in the drawer marked Mad Brilliant Messes with a Thumping Message.

Bong’s next film is being made in South Korea.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

 

Filth

James McAvoy as the deranged cop Bruce Robertson in Filth

 

 

 

The last film I saw that had any Irvine Welsh involvement was The Magnificent 11, a comedy so peculiarly inept that I started to think it was deliberate, a tax write-off perhaps, or a spoof of depressing British comedies of the early 1970s, in which girls with blue eye-liner would shed an ill-fitting bra to reveal dog-eared breasts.

 

Jon S Baird’s adaptation of Welsh’s 1998 novel is far more what we expect from the writer of Trainspotting. Welsh has been out of fashion just long enough to be due a comeback, but is this what our New Puritan age is clamouring for – the sweary, druggy, skanky story of a very naughty Edinburgh copper?

 

The answer to that question will be weighed by the tonnage of bums on seats. Meanwhile, there’s James McAvoy’s performance to enjoy. It’s a big Oliver Reed man-beast of a turn with McAvoy as the beefy, hairy, bloky Bruce Robertson, a foul-mouthed, bipolar, sweaty Jock copper with stained teeth who is shagging, snorting and bull-charging his way towards a personal and career meltdown.

 

Outside Robertson’s head everything is Miss Jean Brodie by comparison. His fellow officers are capable, sensible, down to earth. There’s John Sessions, all bumptious authority as Robertson’s boss, while Jamie Bell and Imogen Poots are the 21st century cops who know how to bend to political correctness and how to bend it their way, unlike Robertson.

 

At the dusty Masonic meeting all of them routinely attend Robertson hooks in with a tweedy owlish character called Bladesey (Eddie Marsan), an unlikely escort towards the brink. The women in Robertson’s life are Chrissie (Kate Dickie, again heroically getting her kit off for Scotland in some athletic sex scenes), and Bunty (Shirley Henderson), whom Robertson is harassing with sex-pest phone calls, just for the hell of it.

 

With nods to Dennis Potter, when it’s not following Robertson as he ricochets through police duties, Filth plays interior fantasy as exterior reality. Most obviously in Robertson’s scene with a taxi driver (played by David Soul) as the two lip-sync along to Soul’s 1977 hit single Silver Lady while backing singers pop up from the back seat to contribute ooh-ahhs. But there are other hallucinatory episodes, in which Robertson is visited by a crackpot Australian shrink (Jim Broadbent) who goads his patient on to even worse excess. All very Singing Detective and very funny.

 

But never mind the interludes, what drove this big bad man to this pretty pass? You know, I don’t care. And I don’t think Welsh really does either. His main focus is to wind up deluded grotesques and set them off running around causing damage, most particularly to themselves. He’s never been that great at what you might call the comedown, the getout. Luckily, for the most part, what we get here is the good stuff – a violent frothing custodian of the law taunted by visions of people in animal heads as he falls apart in front of our eyes.

 

It is hugely enjoyable. But Filth also insists on being grown up and explaining things. And the more it goes into Robertson’s psychological motivation – his brother’s early death, his wife’s absence from the marital home – the less I enjoyed it. It really is a film of two parts. Part one is kept afloat by Welsh’s funny, fast and sweary energy and McAvoy’s cortisol-burning performance as a Rabelaisian monster doing what the hell he wants and succeeding because he’s smarter and more driven than the others.

 

Part two is the descent. And after the fireworks of part one, the drool and sentimentality of part two is something of a downer. And without a compensating lift in pace elsewhere, it’s not surprising that, at the cinema I saw this at, people started to shift in their seats.

 

A relation of Woody Harrelson’s cop-out-of-time in Rampart, Robertson is a brute, but he’s doing what a lot of us would like to do. He’s behaving badly and he has the wit and the balls to get away with it. As Filth hits the home straight it suddenly asks us – in a “now look, you’ve had your fun” volte-face – to engage emotionally with people we were being encouraged to laugh at only a few minutes before: bored Henderson, timid Marsan, oversexed Dickie, ridiculous Sessions. The first half of Filth is pretty near perfect and, you know, we get it, we know Robertson is not a nice man, the film’s title is more than just an allusion to a nickname for policemen generally. Director Jon Baird keeps faith with the original novel, but he loses sight a little of what has made his film so entertaining. Irvine Welsh isn’t infallible – see The Magnificent 11 for confirmation. Couldn’t the director have just sent the raging Robertson off over a cliff, Thelma and Louise style?

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013