Darkest Hour (Wright; 2017)

Darkest Hour is the 13th film to be made about Winston Churchill and the second in 2017 alone, and that doesn’t count Dunkirk, a film in which he doesn’t appear but which does cover the same events.  With a topic garnering so much attention, to the point of saturation it could be argued, you had best make sure that something about your film stands out.  In a year with so many biopics and with two other films covering the same territory, Darkest Hour does give itself a bit of distinction, but not nearly enough.

Darkest Hour covers the period of time in Great Britain just prior to Neville Chamberlain being forced out of the office of Prime Minister of England due to a lack of faith in his ability to wage war against Hitler and ends with the rescue of the British troops from the shores of Dunkirk.  Unlike the earlier Dunkirk which showed the event from the point of view of the soldiers stranded and being picked off on the French beaches, Darkest Hour focuses more on the political intrigue surrounding Churchill’s earliest days in office.

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I’m going to come right out and say it straight away, Darkest Hour is prototypical biopic fare.  You’ve seen this movie before, perhaps even about Winston Churchill, in which we have a great actor give a great performance about a renowned historical figure making it appear as if they can do no wrong and anyone who opposes them in any way may as well be a supervillain in a comic book film and along the way we have some good to great cinematography.  That sums up Darkest Hour in a nutshell: rote, by the numbers but very competent biopic filmmaking.

Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill is excellent.  You do see past the veneer of Winston every once in a while and catch Gary peeking through, but overall his portrayal of the man who charted England’s course through World War II is captivating.  Churchill’s lauded dry and often self-deprecating wit shines through, and on top of that Oldman shows us how Churchill learned to transform himself from a cranky recluse to a someone who truly loved people in order to better perform his duties.  It’s the depth the performance needed to make sure Oldman was truly embodying a character and not just mimicking another famous person.  One scene late in the film which takes place on a commuter train is particularly captivating and during those ten minutes or so you forget completely you are watching one person play another, or even that you are watching a film, but become entirely engrossed in watching a man evolve into a someone better than he was before.

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The cinematography is also excellent for the most part.  For a film so focused on locales we are used to seeing grandly shot such as Buckingham Palace and the British Parliament Building, director of photography Bruno Delbonnel gave us a much more claustrophobic, dingy style than we are used to in the grand towers of London to convey the sense of fear and uncertainty so prevalent at the time.  It’s a smart choice and makes for some truly spectacular shots.  The one problem I do have with the cinematography is that every now and then Delbonnel does show off and give us a truly artistic visual which is momentarily awe-inspiring but breaks the mood and flow of the film due to it being so out of place.  Without giving away spoilers, I’ll say that most any shot in the film which starts or finishes from an aerial viewpoint is an example of what I mean.

But, in a year which seems to be redefining how the biopic is made whether it be American Made‘s resemblance to an action film, Stronger‘s nearly complete lack of dramatization, or Professor Marston and the Wonder Women‘s combination of tone, themes, and subject matter, Darkest Hour‘s greatest sin is that it is a very stereotypical biopic.  Winston Churchill is the focus of every scene and is shown to have barely any weakness or character flaw and even on those rare occasions only to allow us to sympathize with him.  His enemies are practically cartoon villains and exist only for us to cheer when Churchill overcomes their plots.  The film shows us that the people who opposed Churchill did so because they feared what war would do to Great Britain and wanted to engage Hitler in peace talks.  With the gift of 75 years of hindsight we can see that Churchill was in the right, but to portray those seeking peace as fools and villains is not only a disservice to diplomats and pacifists everywhere but also makes for a far less interesting story.

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Final verdict:  Darkest Hour is a film worth seeing due to great cinematography and performances, but don’t expect much in the way of enlightenment from it.  We loved films like Ray, Walk the Line, and A Beautiful Mind, but the art form of the biopic has evolved since then, and Darkest Hour is a biopic of the less evolved kind.  If you’re a fan of World War II or biographies in general and are just looking for some light entertainment, then Darkest Hour is an excellent choice.  If you want something truly thoughtful, truly emotional, and truly insightful, though, there have been quite a few better choices to head out and see from just this year alone.

 

The Hitman’s Bodyguard (Hughes; 2017)

Take two incredibly charismatic people, give them characters to play who don’t like each other for some reason, put them in danger, have them find a common bond through being forced to work together, and then happy ending.  It’s the most basic recipe in Hollywood writing history, and it’s what you are going to get in The Hitman’s Bodyguard.

The plot is that the former ruler of Belarus (Gary Oldman) is on trial at the Hague for crimes against his people, but all of the witnesses being brought forward are being killed or have no definitive evidence.  Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson) is a former hitman currently serving time in a European prison who has some evidence on the former despot, but when Interpol agents try to get him to the trial the convoy is attacked.  With no other recourse, Interpol Agent Amelia Roussel (Elodie Yung, Electra from Netflix’s “Daredevil”) calls up her ex-boyfriend Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) who works as a bodyguard to get him to the trial on time.

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The one saving grace in The Hitman’s Bodyguard is the raw charisma of its two stars.  Casting Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson in the two leads was partially an act of genius, in that it was probably the only move that could save this travesty of a script, and partially a tragedy, in that seeing these two do something that was actually good would be an amazing experience whereas here they were merely able to make the movie watchable.  In my review of Logan Lucky, I mention quickly the difference between movie stars and actors.  What we have with Jackson and Reynolds are two movie stars, as they are just being themselves for the most part (Reynolds is forced more often into the straight man role here, so while he isn’t really acting, he is restraining himself), but they are being themselves at their most entertaining and showing a true chemistry which amplifies the hilarity of their banter.

Past the stars charisma and chemistry, though, what we have is one hell of a mess.  First of all, the plotting is so by the book formulaic that there are no surprises to be had throughout the film.  To say The Hitman’s Bodyguard is predictable is practically an understatement.  The only questions asked while watching the movie is not if the next thing we see will be an overused action cliche’, but which exact cliche’ are they going to use next?

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Past the cliche’s we have the ludicrousness of the plot.  The hitman has to get to the Hague because all the other witnesses against Belarus’s former leader are being killed, so how does sending hordes of thugs with guns shooting up major population zones, blowing up speeding cars, and generally making a loud, deadly spectacle of themselves help the case of the defendant?  Wouldn’t someone on the prosecution make some sort of case that all the witnesses for the prosecution are very obviously being attacked by an army?  That’s only one of the more obvious logical problems in a plot filled with them just to give our heroes chances to give one liners while they shoot things and drive really fast.

The tone is also all over the place.  One scene will be practically Looney Tunes level comedy while others will give us actions which are downright disturbing.  Director Hughes seems more concerned with tone on an individual scene basis and doesn’t care how it will affect the flow of the film as a whole.  One scene will give us a gruesome mass murder including children while the next will give us violence more akin to what we’d see in Tom & Jerry as mellow 80’s music plays in the background.  It’s sloppy and distracting.

The action itself is hit or miss.  Some scenes will be well shot and exciting, while others make too much use of close up shaky camera work.  There is a boat chase scene through the streets of Amsterdam late in the film which, if you can throw logic out the window, is very well done and one of the few scenes which make The Hitman’s Bodyguard worth watching, but far too many action bits are shown with no attempt to ground our vision and the camera work’s intention is less to thrill us and more to hide the fact that Reynolds and Jackson aren’t really doing their own fight scenes.

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Finally, amidst the cliched themes of two opposites not really being opposites at all and becoming best of buddies by the end, a very interesting question is raised at one point in the film.  Jackson turns to Reynolds and asks him (I’m paraphrasing) “Which is more evil?  The man who kills the bad guys?  Or the man who protects them?”  It’s a really good question, and would be an excellent theme for this film to explore.  Unfortunately past that one line the question is never even touched upon again, serving only to frustrate with the knowledge that the writers did recognize that there could have been real depth to this story, but they decided to throw it out the window and give us brainless tripe instead.

Final verdict:  The power of personality is the only thing which elevates The Hitman’s Bodyguard to the level of mediocrity.  If you want to shut your brain off completely and just enjoy two very humorous men bantering and shooting things, then The Hitman’s Bodyguard will scratch that itch.  However, with this summer delivering us so many smart action movies and comedies, I can’t recommend even to those The Hitman’s Bodyguard unless you’ve also seen all the others first.   Never dull but always dumb, that’s how I’d describe this movie as succinctly as I can.