Police Story 3: Supercop (1992, Stanley Tong)

Photo 04-01-2018, 03 04 11In my defence I thought I’d seen Police Story 3: Supercop years ago but it turned out to be the spin-off movie Supercop 2 with Michelle Yeah reprising her role from the earlier film and Jackie Chan making a brief cameo. Somewhat confusingly both films have been released in some territories under the title Supercop so in an era where getting hold of HK movies usually involved replying to adverts in martial arts magazines from specialists offering VHS copies at ridiculously high prices I don’t feel too bad about my error. If anything it was great to have another film from that great period between 1982-1994 when Chan was at his peak as a performer.

Photo 04-01-2018, 02 53 57Though a sequel the film also functions as a comeback for Michelle Yeoh after five years away from acting. It’s a buddy movie teaming Chan’s laidback HK police officer with his initially stern Chinese counterpart to take down a drug smuggling kingpin. The film also anticipates the impending handover of Hong Kong from British to Chinese rule by showing the two working together despite their differences.

Photo 04-01-2018, 03 00 07There’s the usual clashes you get in movies about mismatched partners, mostly involving Chan making fun of the Chinese government’s extreme training techniques for their cadets before the two begin to complement each other and become an effective partnership. The plot involves going undercover to infiltrate the network of a drug syndicate run by a jovial Nintendo loving psychopath. While the first two were quite gritty for 80s’ Jackie Chan movies Police Story 3 is much larger in scale and has the feel of a Bond movie. In fact I’m pretty sure the makers of Tomorrow Never Dies (1997, Roger Spottiswoode) must have watched this at least once given Yeoh’s presence in that film and Brosnan’s Bond effectively fulfilling the Chan role as the wise-cracking partner.

As you’d expect from this era in Chan’s career the stunts are life-threatingly insane with Jackie dangling from a helicopter as it flies for miles over the city and Yeoh riding a motor bike onto a moving train. There’s a little too much gunplay which may well be a reaction to the popularity of John Woo movies at the time and Yeoh’s own contributions to the “Girls with Guns” sub-genre which made her a star. The only downside is Maggie Cheung reprising the least rewarding role of her career as Chan’s girlfriend whose presence is meant to provide comic relief but the treatment of her character through this franchise leaves much to be desired.

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Yeoh and Chan (for about 5 minutes) would return for Supercop 2 a year later as would director Stanley Tong. Soon Hollywood would beckon for both of them and I reckon Yeoh has fared better in that respect with a diverse and interesting career. Jackie’s greatest achievements remain the films he made in the 80s’ and early 90s’ and Police Story 3: Supercop is one of the best of them.

 

 

The Last Tycoon (1976, Elia Kazan)

 

Photo 02-09-2017, 16 10 41Elia Kazan was a coward who named names to the House of Un-American Activities Committee to protect his own career so I’ve never felt ashamed about not having seen many of his films. I quite liked On the Waterfront until somebody pointed out the film was a thinly veiled justification for Kazan’s own actions at those hearings. However Kazan’s adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon has been on my list since attending a workshop held by novelist Stewart O’Nan at the Edinburgh Book Festival a couple of years back. O’Nan had just published West of Sunset, a novel based on Fitzgerald’s experiences as a screenwriter in Hollywood working at MGM for two years. His only screenwriting credit was for 1938’s Three Comrades (Frank Borzage), but his time in the film industry clearly gave him enough material for The Last Tycoon and there are moments in the novel that feel like they come from first hand experience.

Published posthumously The Last Tycoon is only a fragment. You can read it in a few hours. It’s loosely based on the short life of MGM’s wunderkind producer Irving Thalberg who passed away in 1936, the year before Fitzgerald took up employment at the studio. The novel is narrated by Cecilia Brady, daughter of a studio boss, who is attempting to carve out a career in Hollywood despite her father’s objections to her working in the industry and in particular the close relationship she forms with his younger partner Monroe Stahr.

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I think this story works better if seen through Cecilia’s eyes but in the film Stahr (Robert De Niro) takes centre stage while Cecilia (Theresa Russell) is relegated to a supporting character. Otherwise Harold Pinter’s screenplay remains largely faithful to the narrative. Later editions of the novel include Fitzgerald’s notes which show the novel’s third act would have been much more dramatic with blackmail plots and murder but these are ignored.

The opening scene establishes Monroe Stahr’s involvement in all aspects of the studio production and his near mythical status in the eyes of the public. An elderly tour guide (John Barrymore) leads a group of visitors through the studio and tells anecdotes about Stahr and his tragic love affair with the late movie star Minna Davis (Ingrid Boulting). Barrymore’s presence, “I’ve been here since the silent days,” lets us know this is a film about Hollywood and it’s past. Then we are introduced to Stahr at work as he oversees the editing of a movie, fires a director because the leading lady (Jeanne Moreau) doesn’t respect him, and has a heart-to-heart with an ageing matinee idol (Tony Curtis) who is unable to make love to his wife anymore.

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There’s a rueful moment when Curtis stares at a publicity still on the wall showing him in his younger days and it must have chimed with the former movie star who was now working regularly on television. Had Kazan made The Last Tycoon in the 50s’ Curtis would have been perfect as Monroe Stahr. He’s got a restless hurt quality which would have suited this part, but I’m not sure about De Niro. Charm isn’t exactly his thing. He’s good in the quiet reflective moments but his Stahr orders people around like a gangster.

The lack of story means there’s a lightness to The Last Tycoon, but this works in the film’s favour. At times it feels like a Hollywood ghost story with Stahr haunted by the absence of his wife. When returning home after working late he looks to the stairs as if expecting Minna to appear suddenly. When he enters his bedroom Kazan cuts to a scene from one of her movies as if he is retreating into that world. Later he’s stunned to see a woman on the lot who resembles Minna, Kathleen Moore (Boulting again), and he seeks her out as if to reassure himself she wasn’t an apparition. They begin a tentative affair but they both want different things from each other. With it’s Hollywood setting, doppelgängers, and potential for melodrama I wonder what David Lynch could have done with this kind of material.

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I don’t know if Kazan meant this to be his final film but it feels like a farewell and a fuck you to the business. While Fitzgerald was writing a tragedy about a man brought down by his own flaws Kazan’s version of Stahr is undone by the machinations of those around him. The climactic scene is taken from the book, a lengthy meeting between a writer’s union rep which ends in a booze-fuelled punch-up. Here this is the incident which gets Stahr removed from his position at the studio. The talented filmmaker finds himself exiled from Hollywood, undone by the work of a Communist agitator (played by Jack Nicholson). I get the feeling Kazan never felt any shame about destroying his former friends lives at all.

The film closes with a reprise of an earlier scene in which Stahr had schooled an over-literary screenwriter (Donald Pleasance) in the art of keeping the story simple and yet dramatic (something I think Fitzgerald probably had said to him during his time in Hollywood) but with De Niro now addressing the camera. “I was only making pictures…” which given Kazan’s history feels like he’s speaking directly to the viewer and insisting his work is more important than any other aspect of his life and that’s what he should be remembered for. He’s still a grass though. I’m with Nick Nolte and Ed Harris who refused to applaud Kazan when De Niro presented him with an Honorary Oscar in 1999.

One Man Up (2001, Paolo Sorrentino)

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I’ve been calling myself a fan of The Young Pope director Paolo Sorrentino for a while but I’d never seen his debut movie One Man Up. I reckon I’ve got a decent alibi for this Cinema Shame entry as the film didn’t get a UK cinema release only becoming available as part of a pricey (£60) Sorrentino box-set in 2011. It’s always interesting going back and looking at a director’s first film, especially if they have developed their own distinctive style. One Man Up is more understated than his later films but there a few hints of the visual flamboyance to come in films like The Great Beauty, notably an elaborate dream sequence featuring ballerinas.

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Despite the title it’s a film about two men, one a footballer and the other an ageing rock star. Like the dual protagonists of The Double Life of Veronique (91, Krzysztof Kieslowski) they share the same name and seem to have some kind of otherworldly connection. However they are not mirror images of each other like Veronique/Veronika. Antonio Pisapia (Andrea Renzi) is a quiet man, a centre-half for a Seria A team who sports the classic mullet and moustache combination favoured by defenders in the 1980’s. Tony Pisapia (Toni Servilla) is a hedonistic pop singer who still dresses like it’s the 70s’ and performs his greatest hits to his loyal fanbase then drags his middle-aged entourage out to nightclubs when they’d rather be at home with their families.

Photo 14-04-2017, 21 02 02We first meet Antonio during the half-time break in a match they’re clearly losing. You can tell by the way the manager (Italo Celero) takes off his jacket, swings it over his head, then throws it across the room, before launching into a spectacular rant targeting each player individually for abuse but also telling them what they should be doing out there on the pitch. While his teammates are terrified and stare at the floor, Antonio calmly offers tactical advice to his disbelieving manager. When it’s rejected he storms out of the dressing room and out onto the pitch where he takes the acclaim of the crowd.

Both of these introductions hint at their downfall. Antonio’s separateness from his teammates is emphasised in a later scene where he refuses a bribe to throw a match. One of the players who wanted to take the money goes studs up in a 50/50 challenge in training and destroys Antonio’s leg. Tony’s decision to bed a young admirer he meets in the nightclub costs him dearly when his wife catches them together and points out the girl is clearly underage. The Pisapia’s find themselves in limbo. Their careers are over but they’re still recognisable everywhere they go. Tony is probably going to jail, but Antonio has planned for this moment. He has developed his own tactical system and wants to try out his new ideas as a coach but nobody’s willing to take a chance on an untried young manager. Even his former club fobs him off with an empty promise of a job at some point in the future.

Sorrentino films pretty much all tell a similar story about an isolated male protagonist (usually a creative) struggling to connect with those around him. They either come to terms with some past traumatic event or destroy themselves. In The Consequences of Love an exiled mafia accountant puts his life in danger when he falls in love with a barmaid at the hotel he’s hiding out in. The Family Friend subversively reworks Beauty and the Beast into a tale of a vicious loan shark being tricked out of his fortune by a young woman. Sean Penn’s Robert Smith inspired rock star leaves his reclusive Irish home to hunt down the Nazi war criminal who tortured his father in This Must Be the Place, while in The Great Beauty Jep Gambardella’s hack writer is shocked out of his hedonistic complacency by the death of an old lover. Both protagonists in One Man Up fall into this category of being creatives at a moment of crisis in their lives, though to be honest I was only interested in one of them.

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Antonio is loosely based on ex-Roma captain Agostino Di Bartolomei who struggled with depression after retiring from the game and eventually took his own life at the age of 41. There are plenty of films about rock stars finding themselves (Sorrentino revisits this theme with This Must Be The Place) but One Man Up is the only film I can think of about a footballer coming to terms with ageing out of their profession. It’s a portrait of somebody slowly drifting away from their own life. The attempts to create some otherworldly connection between the two men feels like warmed over Kieslowski and just gets in the way of the more interesting story. Maybe the contrast is needed between the two leads though to appreciate Renzi’s quietly moving performance. Servillo is a commanding performer and would go on to become Sorrentino’s regular leading man, but it’s Renzi who is the heart of the film.

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When accepting his Academy Award for The Great Beauty Sorrentino thanked Federico Fellini and Diego Maradona. It is clear he regards both men as being equals in terms of artistry. Maradona even appears as a character (though not sadly played by the real one) in Youth, while Cardinal Voiello in The Young Pope is an avid Napoli fan and relaxes by watching old clips of the Argentine legend on Youtube. It wouldn’t surprise me if once he’s finished with his HBO series Sorrentino follows it up with a biopic of Maradona.