Ray Winstone stars as Capt. Stanley, the hardboiled, even brutal commander of an isolated settlement. He’s been hunting down the Burns brothers gang and, when the movie opens, we find ourselves inside a cabin punctured by bullet holes, as a remnant of the gang, led by Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce), desperately fights off an assault by Stanley’s men.
Charlie ends up captured, along with his psychologically underdeveloped younger brother, Mikey. Pistol-whipping Mikey in order to show he’s serious, Stanley threatens to hand the child-like Mikey on upcoming Christmas day, unless Charlie hunts down and kills his older brother Arthur (Danny Huston). Arthur, who’s hiding out deep in the wilderness with two confederates, is a psychotic killer, whose recent rape and murder of a pregnant woman, along with the woman’s husband and baby, has roused the local civilian population against the Burnses. A natural sympathy for the rebellious Irish outlaws has been squandered, and everyone would like to see them dead.
Although it is chock full of well-orchestrated and effective scenes of violence, most of the tension in The Proposition is psychological. Stanley’s decision to free Charlie has caused dissension in the ranks and unrest among the civilians. The captain himself is so unsure of his ploy that he keeps it from his wife (Emily Watson), whose temperament is so gentle that he spends half his time pretending to her that life in Australia is not as nasty and short as it really is. Charlie is undergoing similar stresses himself, as he reunites with a volatile brother who suspects Charlie is up to something dangerous and deadly.
Hillcoat is as adroit as contrasting these dynamic tensions with the huge, unchanging harshness of the landscape as he is with the gut-punching action scenes. There are only two serious drawbacks to the movie. Rock star Nick Cave’s screenplay is loaded with too much ersatz grimy lyricism, particularly when it comes to the poetry-spewing Arthur. And in an appearance as a bounty-hunter, John Hurt chews up so much scenery with so much ill-judged abandon that it’s a miracle he’s not left exposed to the desert sun.
Jackie Chan has returned to China and re-upped with longtime collaborator director Stanley Tong (Super Cop) to make the elaborate, big-budget The Myth. Jackie plays a modern-day archaeologist who is convinced by his old buddy William (Tony Leung), a physicist, to help track down mysterious minerals that cause weightlessness. At the same time Jackie (the name of the character), has been having vivid and unshakable dreams in which he is an imperial general during the reign of the ancient Chinese Emperor Qin.
The contemporary sequences alternate between comedy and action suspense, with Jackie getting in and out of trouble with Indian religious devotees and swordsmen. The highpoint of these episodes comes when Jackie, some allies and enemies get stuck on a conveyor belt coated with extra-strength glue and not only have to fight and flee with various parts of their bodies stuck to the surface, but get off the contraption before they end up chopped by an automatic blade at its end. The unlikelihood of such a machine is more than offset by the ingenuity of the action.
The scenes of the past, which split time equally with the modern bits, involves the adventures of General Meng-yi (Jackie), as he first protects and then falls in love with a Korean concubine (Kim Hee-seon) headed for the royal court. There’s chicanery and evil afoot, and Meng-yi ends up having to face off against a huge rebellious army all by himself. Bloodier by far than past Chan films, the ancient scenes have a sometimes spectacular scale that contrasts well with the modern ones. The tales conjoin in a huge hidden cave where weightlessness reigns.
The movie is inhibited by an inevitable problem. Chan is 51 years old now and, though he still seems as strong as ever, he’s slowed down noticeably. This isn’t a problem all the time, but longtime fans won’t help but notice it. Then, too, The Myth somehow fails to embrace to romantic grandeur Tong and Chan must have hoped would match the physical scale of the production. Still, Chan fans should get more than a few kicks out of this long hoped-for return to his roots.
It wouldn’t be a major film festival without a Hong Kong action film, and this year at Toronto it’s SPL, provided by yeoman director Wilson Yip. Simon Yam stars as the veteran head of a small anti-organized crime unit who is days away from retirement. Frustrated by a career-long failure to nail a slippery mob boss (played by Sammo Hung of all people!), Yam’s character has turned to illegal means to convict the boss of a cop-killing.
This doesn’t sit well with Yam’s replacement, played by Donny Yen. Just as hardboiled as Yam, Yen nevertheless insists on a strict ethical code, a feeling reinforced by an incident in his past when he punched a crook in the head so hard that he turned him into a half-wit.
SPL has come nice action scenes (though he’s fatter than ever, Hung can still go a few rounds) and a righteously grimy atmosphere, yet somehow it lacks the pull of the best Hong Kong crime films. It does, however, compensate for that loss with a climax that is quite shocking a fulfills the Chinese maxim that there’s no escaping fate.
And last and least is the Dutch 06/05: The Sixth of May, directed by Theo van Gogh. As you may remember, Van Gogh was murdered by an enraged Muslim in Amsterdam a couple of years ago. A controversialist who appeared frequently on television and radio, Van Gogh didn’t spare insulting language when it came to describing Holland’s Muslim residents (or Jews and others, for that matter). Still, many consider him a martyr to free speech, which he may have been.
06/05 is about the 2002 assassination of Pim Fortuyn, a popular Dutch politician who advocated strict restrictions on asylum and immigration policies and a reduction, if not elimination, in policies stressing multi-culturalism. Featuring a dogged investigator (a photojournalist) and shot documentary-style, a la Z, the movie rejects the official explanation that Fortuyn was murdered by left-wong activists acting alone. Rather, it posits that the leftists were unknowingly manipulated by a dark conspiracy involving American and Dutch industrialists working with a secret Dutch security agency.
The theory plays as fantastically as it sounds. Moreover, despite a prolific career, Van Gogh was never much of a filmmaker, and 06/05, with its fake “realism” and tendentiousness, will do nothing to enhance his posthumous reputation in that regard.