Tagged: Spy Thrillers

Review – A Most Wanted Man (2014)

Director: Anton Corbijn

Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Willem Dafoe, Nina Hoss, Robin Wright, Daniel Brühl

Most Wanted ManIt is a bitter sweet time to be a film lover as new films from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman continue to hit the screen. The latest of them is Anton Corbijn’s slow burning spy thriller A Most Wanted Man.

With the 9/11 attacks having been planned from Hamburg, the German port city has become a key counterterrorist hub in the years since. There we meet the rumpled and weary Gunter Bachmann, head of a German counterterrorism unit. Constantly butting heads with Hamburg intelligence head Dieter Mohr who want to see more arrests, Gunter is interested in playing a longer game. As he explains, it is about using the minnow to catch the barracuda, and using the barracuda to catch the shark. Both have their sights set on Issa Karpov, a mysterious Chechen refugee with past militant links, who has arrived in Hamburg seeking to claim a multi-million Euro inheritance. For Dieter, Karpov is a prize, for Gunter he is a minnow with which he can catch the barracuda he his team has been tailing for years.

Being based on a John le Carré novel, A Most Wanted Man obviously does not deliver a spy thriller in the James Bond mould. There is a distinct lack of explosions, chases and action set pieces of any kind. Rather, this is classic espionage in a post-9/11 context. Corbijn’s film takes us into the morally dubious world of intelligence gathering where nothing is straight forward, nothing is black and white. We encounter rival agencies with rival motives, working together when it is convenient, and behind each other’s backs when that is. The result for the viewer is that we are left not just wondering who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, but whether there are good guys and bad guys at all.

This uncertainty about who to side with is reinforced by a structure which sees us move between apparent protagonists for much of the first half of the film. It takes a while for the film to settle into a fixed point of view. The ensemble cast features a number of Americans playing Germans, while impressive German actors like Nina Hoss and Daniel Brühl are reduced to minor roles. Of the Americans, some (Hoffman) do a more convincing job with their accent than others (McAdams).

Anton Corbijn, who came to feature filmmaking from music videos, is a very precise filmmaker, and in serving le Carré’s densely layered plot, he delivers a meticulously crafted film. With cinematography from Frenchman Benoît Delhomme, A Most Wanted Man is also a sharp looking film.

A subdued film that is at times quite slow, A Most Wanted Man is interesting without being truly compelling.

Rating: ★★★

Review by Duncan McLean

Have you seen A Most Wanted Man? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.

Review – Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Starring: Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Keira Knightley, Kenneth Branagh

Jack Ryan Shadow RecruitIt has been over a decade since Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, the hero of The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger and The Sum of All Fears and the man who is to financial analysts what Indiana Jones is to archaeologists, last appeared on our screen. So therefore it is time for a reboot and that is exactly what we get in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.

As reboots are want to do, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit takes us back to the beginning for an origins story. After being badly injured in a helicopter attack while serving in Afghanistan, Jack Ryan is recruited by the CIA to work covertly as a financial analyst on Wall Street. There he uncovers a Russian plot to crash the US economy with a terrorist attack. So Ryan finds himself upgraded to operational status and on his way to Moscow to try and work out when and where this attack is going to occur before it’s too late.

Clancy wrote Jack Ryan as a Cold War hero, but Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit – the first Ryan film not to be directly based on a Clancy novel – recreates him as a hero for the post-9/11 world. It is the attacks on the World Trade Center which compels the young Ryan to abandon his PhD study in London and join the Marines. While in keeping with Clancy’s novels the antagonists in the film are from Russia, it prefers to play off contemporary fears of terrorism and economic meltdown rather than old Cold War tensions.

Having previously been played by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck, it is Chris Pine’s turn to step into the role. However, despite this being the fifth Ryan film, audiences don’t have the same clear expectations of the character as they do for someone like a James Bond, so the pressure on Pine stepping into the role is not as intense. That said, he does a good job. Unlike his brash, impulsive Captain Kirk, Pine imbues his intellectually brilliant Ryan with a certain vulnerability that is fitting of an agent at the beginning of his career who is not yet battle-hardened.

Pine is surrounded by an impressive supporting cast. Kevin Costner continues his recent career resurgence as a quality supporting actor in his role as the stoic William Harper, the CIA agent who recruits Ryan. As Ryan’s girlfriend, Keira Knightley gets slightly more to work with than the usual love interest character, with some of the scenes between the two of them being quite touching. Kenneth Branagh, who is also directing here, makes for a steely villain as the Russian Viktor Cherevin.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit largely follows the spy thriller playbook established by the James Bond and, more recently, Jason Bourne franchises. In this globetrotting film we move between London, New York and Moscow, and are given regular action sequences, whether helicopter attacks, hand-to-hand combat or car chases. However, the quick cutting shaky-cam used in the action scenes does take audience disorientation to a new level.

While Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a contemporary reboot engaging with contemporary concerns there is something wonderfully old-fashioned about it. It is a classic espionage film. It is still Americans against Russians, it still comes down a race against a ticking time bomb, and it is still quite a lot of fun.

Rating – ★★★☆

Review by Duncan McLean

Review – Shadow Dancer (2012)

Director: James Marsh

Starring: Andrea Riseborough, Clive Owen, Domhnall Gleeson, Aiden Gillen, Brid Brennan, David Wilmot, Gillian Anderson

Shadow DancerColette McVeigh, a single mother with connections to the IRA, is picked up and interrogated by Mi5 agents after failing to go through with mission to plant a bomb on the London Underground. She is given a choice between a long prison sentence and separation from her young son, or agreeing to share information on the IRA cell in which her brother is a key member. She reluctantly chooses the latter and Shadow Dancer – a title which won’t make sense until a revelation late in the film – then follows the relationship between Colette and her Mi5 controller, Mac, as she goes about the dangerous business of being an informant.

If you want to think about it in generic terms, Shadow Dancer would be categorised as a spy thriller. But you would have to throw out a number of your preconceived notions of what a spy thriller is. Like Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in 2011, Shadow Dancer is a slow burning film with a steadily escalating tension rather than a roller coaster ride we expect from the majority of spy thrillers which follow the conventions established by James Bond films. Shadow Dancer moves at a very slow pace, to the point that it will be very off-putting for some viewers.

The performances are quite strong, even if the motivations for some characters are not always clear. In particular, Andrea Riseborough has earned some acclaim for her central performance as Colette. The key to her performance is the way that, while allowing us to see some of her anxieties and concerns, she manages to retain a moral mystery which means we never really know where she stands in terms of the larger conflict. Is she a believer in the IRA cause or obliged to play a role out of a sense of family duty or guilt? But I will admit to struggling with her character at times. I found her character so closed off, so internalised, that it became difficult to empathise with her.

Director James Marsh’s background is in documentary making – he won the Best Documentary Oscar in 2009 for Man on a Wire – and Shadow Dancer is a revealing picture in the way that it exposes the danger and volatility of life in Belfast in the 1990a. However, it fails to really give a sense of the socio-political context which explains that violence and volatility, and as a piece of entertainment it can be a really hard slog.

Rating – ★★

Review by Duncan McLean