Sam Waterston as “Richard Helms”: what rough beast
Even by the juggernaut logic of remake culture, picking Michael Winner’s very 1970s and Charles Bronson-shaped The Mechanic out of the hat for a revamp – first as a buffed Jason Statham remake and now punted in the general direction of a franchise via an unrequested sequel – seems more like a knee-jerk marketing exercise than anything more rational. The clue is suddenly making the latest incarnation of Arthur Bishop exactly as bulletproof and immortal as your average superhero, so as to fit the template of current audience expectations without scraping the sides – although the actual give away is probably the decision to deploy the mighty colon of intent and call it Mechanic: Resurrection in the first place. Those old Michael Winner films from his US period, choked with dust and death, always deserved more serious critical analysis than they got, and the replacement of that mood with sunny slaughter and weightless green-screen pretence is as revealing as it is dire as it is ineffable. I reviewed Mechanic: Resurrection in the November issue of Sight & Sound, while pondering whether the dearth of meaningful action cinema from any creator not named Michael Mann allows it to be even called a niche any more.
And for the December issue of the same magazine I read Matt Zoller Seitz’s new book The Oliver Stone Experience, which follows the approach of Seitz’s book on Wes Anderson with slightly different results. Stone’s volubility avoids the occasional impression that the Anderson book was the record of an interview in a holding cell, and the photos culled from Stone’s archives are all deeply revealing. On the other hand, Seitz’s genial meandering friendly-witness style, deliberately transferred onto the page intact, makes for some exasperating trips around the conversational houses, and maybe frames some of Stone’s frustrations in a more baldly downbeat note than he himself seems to place them. Reading Stone and Peter Kuznick’s The Untold History of the United States, which doesn’t discuss his films at all, somehow seems necessary after Seitz’s book to get a fuller picture of the man; that never used to feel the case after finishing any of the Faber & Faber director interview volumes, any ten of which could fit inside Seitz’s book like a school of guppy in a whale. But books like this – books in general – seem to be the only place to carry out meaningful retrospective surgery on films these days, such as rehabilitating Savages from whatever lazy critical wasteland it was pitched into at the time, or flagging up the ten minutes originally deleted from Nixon in which Sam Waterston plays Richard Helms as the devil, probably – a scene I first ran headlong into unawares on the extended dvd and which had me lunging for the rewind button, definitely.
Elsewhere: for Tripwire, a look at another of 2000AD‘s blasts from the past and the last days of its updated version of Dan Dare, Britain’s venerable space-aviator turned here into a heavily armed short tempered weapon of mass destruction in a sheepskin jacket. A product of its time in every sense.
As for my old mate Doctor Stephen Strange: my Marvel-movie fever broke last year when a member of the van Dyne family finally turned up and I discharged myself from superhero cinema’s mobile 4077th field hospital, so the ways in which characters from my youth are winnowed and diminished to fit the rhythms and beats of the MCU template rather than expanded from within to fill the available screen real estate doesn’t raise my pulse any more. As it happens, whatever else may be wrong with Doctor Strange, its framing and pacing feel more like the work of an actual film director than any MCU film since Captain America, although Scott Derrickson has opted not to overturn the drearily masculine atmosphere and is lumbered with the same old familiar macrostructure and Big Finish, the universal language of the trans-national blockbuster. Within it arrives a dreadful Dormammu, part standard Big Cloud monster and part Nome King from Return To Oz, a visual neither interested in nor capable of summoning the formal artistic monstrousness of Steve Ditko’s design or its appalling human form.
If a film in this area really wanted to be distinct it would get Christopher Young to do the music, but short of that hiring Michael Giacchino helps; the theme has the skipping horns of Harry Potter and starts off a bit like The 13th Warrior, but on the level of simple compositional style knocks any of those terrible scores by Henry Jackman that drape like a lead smock over his Captain America films into a distant dimension. Benedict Cumberbatch, looking quite the part in the cloak of levitation and in full waspish arrogant-comeuppance mode, is probably the most authentic actorly turn in the MCU for a while, certainly the first sight of an actor having actual fun since Mickey Rourke asked Sam Rockwell about a cockatoo. At one point, speaking over Giacchino’s harpsichord and sitar twanging, he name-checks Chuck Mangione, which for reasons too obscure to really count gave me the most authentic laugh I’ve had in a superhero film since 1981. He might spice up the flat acting palette of the MCU, if that low bar counts for anything, since this is one of the few characterisations so far to spot that self-knowledge remains the only superhero coin worth minting. Cumberbatch, with his air of a martyr looking for a cross to bear, knows the score. Perhaps, you catch yourself wondering, this is a legitimate translational effort.
Or you would wonder, if the trailer for Logan hadn’t run before the film, suggesting all the things the MCU recoils from with visceral allergic horror: characters willing to be freighted with history and fate and dust, with the consequences of something not unlike Winner’s adult self-knowledge rather than an adolescent’s recognition of the dark side under the bed. James Mangold knows the score better.