Casino Royale (a long time after everyone else has seen it)

Whilst reading about Gemma Arterton (I promise you, I am in no way obsessed by her delightful pointy nose and Uma Thurman bob), I came across an article about her in the new Bond film which had a spoiler warning.

It then said “Although, if you’re reading an article about Bond 22 without having seen ‘Casino Royale’, you’re an enormous internet geek who learns about the plots and characters of films from Wikipedia or Empire Online and not by actually seeing the films in question. Saddo. Get out more.” I’m paraphrasing.

It was pretty shocking to realise, then, that I hadn’t seen “Casino Royale”. Despite being a Bond fan, despite my exciting fortnight working in the EON props archive, despite what everyone said about it, I still hadn’t seen it.

Well, now I have.

If you haven’t seen it, this review isn’t going to be much help to you, but here’s a cursory run-through of the plot. (Don’t worry, there’s not much plot in this film.) James Bond is, like, just some dude who kills two people and then instantly becomes an impassionate, cold-blooded killer. He does some running around, is in the Evening Standard, gets told off, goes to the Bahamas, annoys some guy, wins this guy’s car at cards and sleeps with his wife. The guy is working for another, more mean guy, who has a scarred face. Now, this new guy is evil. The only tears he cries are tears of BLOOD, ffs! He likes playing cards and being evil, and so invites people to play cards and maybe a little evil on the side and Bond turns up to play some cards and see just how evil this guy is. By this point, there’s an accountant with Bond, who is a hot chick (who’d have thought…). He plays some cards, beats up some guys, plays some cards, gets beaten up, plays some cards, gets poisoned, dies, comes back to life, plays some cards and then wins. The lady accountant is upset by all the beatings for about thirty seconds, then gets over it. Bond and lady then get captured, and the evil, blood-weeping guy plays Flicksies with Bond’s testicles. Bond is hurt pretty bad, but when he wakes up, he decides that he is TOTAWWY IN WUV with the accountant. Then some stuff happens with some other dudes who aren’t related to the weepy-blood guy, there’s a big finish, and a smarmily self-referential coda.

I’m not quite sure what I was expecting, but for the first ten minutes I sat there thinking “this is just like a Bond film!” It didn’t feel as dramatically different as I was led to believe. They had that goofy incorporation of the gun barrel logo, and another pretentious title sequence. The parkour stunt sequence, running up the crane, fighting on the crane, falling off the crane, is bloody great. After that point, it kind of waffled on for about an hour, batting off embarrassing cameos from Richard Branson and, uh, Gunther von Hagens and doesn’t really pick up until Eva Green turns up, with her smokey eyes and smirky face. I liked her in this a lot, despite the fact that – as my housemate pointed out – her relationship with Bond is pretty stupid.

My main criticism of Daniel Craig as James Bond is that sometimes director Martin Campbell shoots him in darkened rooms and in the half-light, he looks exactly like Ray Stubbs.

Because Craig looks enormous. When he first tries on his dinner jacket, prancing around a hotel room, he looks like Bongo, the bouncer from the Ink & Paint Club in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”. He is clearly exceptionally muscled, as the scene in the dinky pants shows (ladies), and after forty years of a lithe Bond (apart from in “A View To A Kill”, ho ho), it’s quite weird to see not a gentleman killer, but a killer – like someone cast Ricky Hatton as James Bond. Bond has always been the physical underdog – think of the look on Connery’s face as he sized up Oddjob. Or Moore being pounded on the head by the massive hands of Jaws. In the exhilarating parkour sequence, the villain is the leapy, sproingy lightweight, and Bond is the hulking oaf literally running through walls. And what’s painful is that Craig is clearly an intelligent actor, but the script requires him to be “a blunt object”. He’s a thug. Maybe the theory behind the progression of this “reboot” of Bond is that, over time, Craig slims down, becoming more like the Bond we know.

(Incidentally, rather than the Bourne films, I realised whilst watching it that my enjoyment of the Bond films has probably spilled into my love of “Spooks”, and I then realised that Bond should probably be played by Rupert Penry-Jones.)

Tonally, the film’s a bit like watching “The World Is Not Enough” whilst someone occasionally kicks you in the head (or plays Flicksies with your testicles). The imported grittiness feels jarring, and the humour (obviously from the flamboyant purple quills of Neil Purvis and Robert Wade) doesn’t sit well with the lunk they’ve asked Craig to be. Then there’s the much-vaunted contribution of Paul Haggis, a man whose origins creating kindly-mountie cop-fluff “Due South” I will bring up every time I speak of him. I loathed “Crash”, and all the cloying dialogue late in the game about how Bond has “no armour… you’ve stripped it from me” is textbook Haggis. Craig even speaks Haggis’s dialogue with the same enormous significance as they did in “Crash” – like there’s a lump of coal in his mouth, and if he gently spits it out, Tiny Tim will be warm this Christmas.

It should also be mentioned that this film is really damned long. It’s two hours and twenty-four minutes. Like I said, other than the parkour chase, the opening hour is all faff, and it’s only once Eva Green plonks herself unceremoniously into the seat opposite Bond on the train to Montenegro that the film hunkers down and focuses. The love story doesn’t work because it is fluffy and vague – Bond has been established as a cold-hearted rogue who clearly just wants to jump Green’s bones, and we’re supposed to believe that, after the Flicksies, Bond genuinely is in love. It’s nonsense, and again jars with the smart-arse toughnut they’ve spent the previous two hours setting up. And then they go all Tracy in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” with the end of the film, which hopefully sets up Bond 22’s excoriating examination of Bond’s misogyny… it was all Eva Green’s fault! Damned women! Can’t trust them as far as you can throw them down a lift-shaft!

I absolutely agree that the franchise needed a re-think after “Die Another Day”, which was the frothiest piece of nonsense the Bond films have ever thrown up. The good news is that “Casino Royale” doesn’t have an invisible car or Toby Stephens playing the son of a North Korean general, or Halle bloody Berry. The bad news is that the weaker writing aspects of the Purvis/Wade era are exacerbated by Paul Haggis schmaltzification, and together they have contrived to make Bond a step away from being played by The Rock. Where “Batman Begins” provided an origin movie which showed the raw potential of a man being shaped into a hero, here Bond is a lump of clay, and remains a lump of clay. The hope is that Daniel Craig’s Bond continues to develop over the next couple of films into something a little… well… Bondier.

American Gangster

American Gangster arrives in cinemas feted as a proper old crime epic, a throwback to “Goodfellas”, to “Scarface”, to “The Godfather”. What could be better than two hours and forty minutes of narcs and kneecapping, especially when in such capable hands as Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott? Well…

Washington plays the titular gangster Frank Lucas, a real-life Harlem kingpin who hits on the boffo idea of buying heroin straight from the growers, an early proponent of the Fairtrade movement. In fact… a bold, original idea? Stacks of money? Dark-suited Mafioso-types? Where have I seen that before?

Crowe plays Richie Roberts, the detective who uncovers Lucas’s scheme, principally by going to the Ali/Frazier fight and seeing who is in the front row. Roberts spends the next hour and a half trying to catch Lucas with his fingers in the cookie jar, before Lucas discovers (SPOILER ALERT!) that crime doesn’t pay. Crowe is in schlub mode here – an early scene of him working out, doing some benchpresses, and sculpting his guns, doesn’t help to distract us from the floppiness of his hair and – later – his breathless panting after going up some stairs. It was genuinely weird to come back from the cinema and see “Gladiator” on the TV, with a lithe Crowe shanking some hapless Roman in the guts, and equate it with sad-sack Crowe making a crisp sandwich in “American Gangster”.

To be fair, the acting in this is pretty great. Lucas is depicted as still and quiet where his contemporaries are brash, and Washington turns in his usual exemplary display of confidence, vulnerability, charm, and moments of pause. Crowe’s character too is quiet, understated, occasionally brought out into righteous anger. How odd that the two main characters in this grandiose-seeming film are probably the two most understated, which makes their eventual confrontation and collaboration seem fitting and right. They’re portrayed as similar people – both with great integrity, both with a very American drive for work, both with a robust set of principles. However, I prefer Washington as a hero – there’s a real kindness in his eyes that even in his uberbastard mode in this and “Training Day” lets us know that everything’s going to be okay – and never quite bought into him being the type to commit the sporadic careless violence that Frank commits.

The cast is filled out with some neat little performances – Josh Brolin as the corrupt cop is flamboyantly cruel, shooting dogs and wearing a mean moustache. It was great to see the awesome John Hawkes from “Me You And Everyone We Know” in a key role, and there are some good rap-related roles for the RZA, T.I. and especially Common, who puts in a warm and engaging performance in a very short time. (I wonder if Ridley Scott knew about the anachronistic nature of the RZA’s Wu tattoo. Or tatt-Wu. Maybe the RZA wouldn’t let them put make-up over it.)

Less impressive, unfortunately, is Chiwetel Ejiofor, who I ordinarily think is bloody marvellous. In this, he didn’t really have much to do, and in a long-shot of the Lucas brothers walking down the street, his confidence was let down by his English shoulders (spot the body posture geek).

The less said about Cuba Gooding Jr the better.

Despite the largely good performances, the film never quite earns its epicness. (Epicity?) The film walks some pretty well-trodden ground, and it does so timidly – never quite wanting to grandstand as spectacularly as “Scarface”, and demurely slinking around the glamour that the life has afforded Lucas. You sense that his family is what drives him to continue, and it is only near the end with events slipping out of his control that he starts believing his own hype and really becomes a monster of greed. What we are left with is the straight guy of crime, when we probably really want to see the hilarious excess of ‘Mr Untouchable’ Nicky Barnes. (Although preferably not played by Cuba Gooding Jr.)

The violence is shocking, yet very sporadic, but still provoked enthusiastic wincing from our audience. The film is long on quiet character moments and short on action; even the drive-by shooting is quite matter-of-fact. Probably the best influence of Ridley Scott is evoking the environment of Harlem in the early ’70s, with rundown Projects contrasted with the 1970s version of high-class. “That’s alpaca!” says Washington of a blood-soaked rug, “Don’t rub it! Dab it!”

So, a pretty run of the mill gangster movie, with little to recommend it above re-watching “Scarface” than Washington’s performance. Perhaps the most confusing element of the whole thing is that Jay-Z was so inspired by the movie that he recorded a whole album based on both the film and its parallels in his own life. As another drug-dealer-turned-business-man, you could perhaps see where Jay-Z was going, but where Jay’s own glittering career signified a new business world where African-Americans could be dominant, the film ends with Lucas as an outcast from the criminal community, principally because his intuition and, to some extent, ethnic origins had alienated him from the Italians who had supported his dealings, upsetting the status quo. The film’s final shot sees Washington released from prison in 1991, alone and vulnerable in a new world, soundtracked not by “Across 110th Street”, but by Public Enemy. So why was Jay-Z so inspired? Perhaps it is that Jay-Z’s business model went from crime to using his talent as a springboard into legitimate business, and Lucas’s tale suggests how different things could have ended up for the Roc-A-Fella businessman – short-lived glamour, followed by punishment. Lucas’s Gangster is American because of initiative and ambition, because of principles and respect, but in latter-day America, you either (to paraphrase another rapper/businessman) get rich or die trying.

Broken Flowers

The received wisdom is that Bill Murray could be filmed doing absolutely nothing for 90 minutes and would still be absolutely captivating. Jim Jarmusch’s “Broken Flowers” is based heavily upon this principle and goes some way to disproving it.

It doesn’t help that it’s based on that hoary old narrative – “Visiting old flames to see what they can teach me about my current predicament”. “High Fidelity” did it with more bite; here, it’s used to place Bill Murray in a series of situations that range from the slightly awkward, to the slightly threatening, and to see what happens. The “old flame visiting” is balanced with the “you have a long lost son” narrative, itself uncomfortably close to Murray’s too-recent “The Life Aquatic”. “Broken Flowers” seems like its running over old ground and has nothing particularly to say about it.

Someone has sent Don a letter on pink paper saying that his 19-year-old son is on his way to see him. The letter is unsigned, and Murray’s neighbour Winston persuades him to visit four of his old girlfriends, each of which may be the mother of his child, and the author of the letter.

Murray’s character, the japesomely-named Don Johnston (“JohnSTON. JohnSTON,” moans Murray, periodically), is a nothing, a zero, a “Man Who Wasn’t There” who is even less there than Billy Bob Thornton. He sits around in horrible tracksuits all day watching cartoons. He is supposedly a great lover, who understands women better than his nebbish neighbour Winston, but it’s a curiously defanged performance from Murray, which demonstrates none of the charm or explosive wit that Murray is famous for, and was presumably supposed to bring to the role. His sole nod to his comic past is overloading a fork with carrots, a momentary clowning that is not dwelt upon by Jarmusch.

Jarmusch keeps things moving at a snail’s pace, albeit a snail that occasionally wanders around a large pile of salt really, really carefully. If there were interesting things happening, then we wouldn’t have minded lingering, but as it is, this is a series of sketches plotted very deliberately so that all symbolism and hints towards the solution of the son’s mother are left maddeningly vague. At the end of the film, we are no wiser as to who is the mother, whether Don even has a son, or if the whole thing wasn’t made up as a sort of test by Don’s frustrated girlfriend. In fact, we don’t even know if Don cares about the fact that he has a son, although we kind of think he does. Every character is draped in elusiveness, and I’m not even sure if we feel anything for any of them. I think this might have been an oversight.

You see, what the response should probably be to this film is to empathise deeply with Murray’s hangdog loveliness, to giggle at the way he enters into worlds he could have been part of, to look at him and say “hey, that schmuck could be me!”, but he’s actually a bit of a shit, an unfeeling bastard who is passive and driveless and unapproachable. He’s less an anti-hero than an anti-human, and not even touches of Jarmusch’s trademark weirdness (Murray getting beaten up without saying a word by some odd bikers, Jessica Lange’s dog having the same name as Don’s neighbour) can rescue it from being formless and pretty much pointless.

Distracting, rather than entertaining, I would be surprised if I remembered much about “Broken Flowers” in two months time. Sorry, Bill.

Fantastic Four

In the near future, Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) of the Von Doom corporation agrees to fund the space research programme of the bankrupt Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffud) and his lunky friend Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) into a cosmic storm of interesting scientific proportions. Matters are complicated by the fact that Von Doom is now both employing and dating Richards’ ex-girlfriend Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) and assigns Storm’s brother, Johnny (Chris Evans… no, not that Chris Evans) to pilot the mission, much to the chagrin of his ex-NASA superior Grimm.

On the space station, the cosmic storm arrives way ahead of schedule, irradiating Richards, Grimm, Storm and Storm, as well as Von Doom, who is also on the space station for some reason.

Arriving back on Earth, it is revealed that they have been given super powers. Johnny Storm can set his body on fire at will, Sue Storm can become invisible at will, Reed Richards can stretch his body at will, and Ben Grimm becomes a massive orange latex man. His superpower is that he is massive and strong and no longer has any ears. Together the four save some NEW YORK FIREFIGHTERS GOD BLESS THEM from falling off a bridge, and they are lauded as heroes. This is because if you do anything nice to a NEW YORK FIREFIGHTER in this POST 9/11 CLIMATE you are IMMEDIATELY A FRIEND OF NEW YORK AND AGAINST TERROR.

Von Doom also changes. He can now control electricity, because his body is turning into metal. He is also now bankrupt because of the failure of the space mission, and because he never got to ask Sue to marry him, ergo he is pissed off, ergo he is homicidal, ergo he is the supervillain Doctor Doom. Although never referred to as such. He attempts to break up the Fantastic Four by turning Ben Grimm back into a human, and by shooting a heatseeking missile at Johnny Storm. He also kidnaps Reed Richards and freezes him, but I can’t remember why.

Anyway, the whole thing culminates in some sort of culmination and NEW YORK has a NEW PROTECTION AGAINST TERROR in the family superhero antics of the Fantastic Four.

Where Batman Begins was life-threateningly serious, this is – like most comic books – for the kids. Dealing with a very vocal minority of comic-reading dudes on the internet must now be in the Top Five of “Hollywood Producers’ irritating day-to-day trials”, along with getting the cocaine out of their carpets, and the tendency in recent years has been to make everything adult, everything explained, everything psychological and “dark” and not very much fun. What the producers of “Fantastic Four” have attempted is to make light, frothy, family entertainment, that’ll sell some action figures and some lunchboxes.

The trouble is, the film is totally bobbins.

To start with, the characters are bland, bland, bland. The key parental figures of Reed and Sue are given pretty much bugger all to do. Johnny Storm is reasonably cheeky and mischievous, but is a one-note character. The “back-story” that “haunts” Ben Grimm – his fiancee, running around the Bronx in a negligee, rejects Grimm now he’s turned into a massive orange rock man – is so hammily set-up and so pathetically dealt with, that he remains just an hilarious massive orange rock man, and not the Cyrano De Bergerac that the producers would have wished. (There’s a scene where his fiancee puts their engagement ring on the ground, and walks away, and Grimm can’t pick it up because of his massive rock fingers. It’s not tragic, or even interesting. It’s kind of comic.)

The dialogue is workmanlike at best, wisecracky and horrible at worst. “Look at me,” demands the Invisible Girl. “I can’t,” joshes Mr Fantastic. It’s like that for 90 minutes. The direction is there somewhere, but who knows where? Director Tim Story made his name on the “Barbershop” movie series, starring Ice Cube, so that’s the level we’re dealing with.

So, I suppose this film is entertaining, but it matches that entertainment pound-for-pound with being facile and stupid. It’s a bit like the “Lost In Space” remake in tone, but without the acting calibre of William Hurt, Gary Oldman, even Matt Le Blanc, and without the story, or set-ups, or direction. Or effects.

There is, therefore, no reason to go and see this film, unless you are a 6-year-old boy. And even then, you’d probably sit around for an hour after it, drinking milkshakes and picking holes in its story. Ah, what a life…

Crash

Paul Haggis, the writer-director-producer-songwriter of “Crash”, also created the Chuck Norris TV series “Walker, Texas Ranger” and the “kindly mountie in America” series “Due South”. I mention these to place this film in its appropriate, lowbrow context. “Crash” is the sort of film that rather desperately wants to be edgy and provocative, but never quite earns the plump portentousness that wobbles onto the screen.

Confusingly sharing a title with the leg-shagging JG Ballard adaptation, “Crash” is a look at racial stereotypes and attitudes in contemporary Los Angeles. Narratively, the film comes from the “more is more” tradition of “Magnolia” and “Love, Actually”. Roughly thirty stories (roughly) weave in and out of each other, building up a picture of confusing times in American race relations:-

Black people are no longer slaves, white people are confused about this.

Except it’s more complicated than this; white people hate black people, black people hate white people, black people hate other black people, white people hate Hispanic and Persian people because they’re a bit like black people, Persian people hate locksmiths and insurance representatives, and white people hate themselves.

So, it’s not really that much more complicated. In fact, it’s much, much more simple. Everyone hates everybody else.

The film begins with a rather noble speech by the great Don Cheadle:- “In LA, nobody touches you. We’re always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.” LA is obviously meant to be a character in the film, but it comes across as a rather horrible character, a huge uncle that sits in the corner of the room and really depresses you. In this way, “Crash” is an excellent advert for upping sticks and moving to a “free love” hippy commune in the middle of nowhere, where you can just, you know, get along with people.

In this film, everything is ‘complicated’, and the film wears its ‘complicated’ colours with pride. Two young black men have an intelligent discussion about how they represent educated black youth, and how white people in the upper-class area they find themselves in should not be afraid of them, and THEN STEAL A CAR! A rich white woman is openly dismissive of her Hispanic home-help, and THEN SAYS THAT SHE’S THE ONLY FRIEND SHE HAS! A black police officer is offered a promotion BECAUSE HE’S BLACK and then is blackmailed into saying something against some guy BECAUSE THE GUY IS WHITE and if the police officer doesn’t say it, HIS BROTHER WILL BE TOTALLY ARRESTED because HE’S BLACK and his MOTHER IS ON DRUGS and HAS NO GROCERIES! This constant pride in being ‘complicated’ is exceptionally wearing. This is even before we get to the racist white policeman rescuing a black woman he had previously molested from a fire, which could probably have been a fun episode of “Due South”.

Rather than being insightful, the film’s fragmented narrative allows some really sloppy writing. Characters are reduced to stereotypes, as they need to be brought in quickly and finished quickly. Stories tend to follow a pattern:- the person is unhappy, they are shot or they shoot somebody, they are more unhappy as a result. The story that resonated most for me was the deeply odd story about the Persian man trying to get his revenge on a locksmith, but that wasn’t really about racial tension, it was more about the trials of being a locksmith. Quid pro quo.

One fortunate thing that the film does is make you not hate its cast. If someone suggested you went to see a film with Ryan Phillipe, Sandra Bullock, Brendan Fraser and Thandie Newton, you’d probably expect a horribly bland comedy, but none of these are given much time to be offensive. Don Cheadle is welcomingly passive, and there’s a standout performance by the rapper Ludacris, who has a nice speech about how hip-hop demeans black people. Oooh. Irony. Apparently Tony Danza from “Taxi” and the woman who plays Deanna Troi are also in this film. I have no idea where.

So, yes. “Crash”. I probably enjoyed it more than watching someone shagging a leg, but I enjoyed it less than “The Wedding Crashers”, which – considering how important the film wanted to be – is a rather damning state of affairs.

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith

So, I should have expected it. Well, I did sort of expect it. Those bastards whose job it is to hype films did their job admirably well, and I was excited. And now… a sort of hollow deadening.

Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi and pretty much everyone else have been fighting a war. It’s been the robots – led by a really big crawly robot and Christopher Lee – against the clones, who look a bit like robots – led by Ian McDiarmid and the Jedi. Oooh! Aaargh! There are “heroes on both sides”! Which is right? Which is right? Who knows?

The answer is, of course, neither of them are right, as Ian McDiarmid is actually Darth Sidious, a Sith Lord; a fact that George Lucas, the king of dramatic irony, has not even tried to hide for the past two films. First Sidious ensnares Anakin Skywalker to the Dark Side, then gets his clone armies to attack the Jedis. Wait a minute… an attack of the clones? What film is this again?

Ah yes, “Revenge of the Sith”. The revenge of the Sith is, apparently, to get the clones to attack. This is not the first confusing and – let’s be fair – toy-manufacturer-led element to this film. Not by a long chalk.

The upshot of all this tomfoolery is that Anakin Skywalker is chopped into little pieces, burnt alive, and turned into Darth Vader. Darth Vader is the big one, the iconic figurehead of the franchise, the one we’ve all come to see, despite the fact that we all know that he looks pretty ridiculous when he walks.

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but were you given an estimated $115m to make a film, you’d make pretty damned sure the script didn’t provoke unwelcome laughter, wouldn’t you? And you’d make it so that the actors who had to read the script didn’t sort of take the piss when speaking the script, wouldn’t you? And if you had really cool lightsaber fights, you’d want your audience to see them, wouldn’t you? And you might contemplate making just a few scenes of amazingly epic battle scenes not edited at the pace of a rampant bonobo so your audience might actually understand what’s going on, mightn’t you?

Don’t get me wrong, I really really wanted to like this movie. I wanted it to like it not because I’m a huge fan of Star Wars or anything, but because I liked Star Wars when I was a kid. And if I ever have kids, I think it would be cool to show them Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi and say “This was really cool when I was a kid”.

The trouble is that now, they’ll say “What about those other three films?” and I’ll say “you really don’t need to bother with them, they suck ass”.

Or, alternatively, a much worse scenario would be that people who have no experience of Star Wars will start at Episode 1, and work their way through chronologically. These people are fucked. Every major dramatic point in the original trilogy has been pre-empted by the prequel trilogy.

Darth Vader: “Luke… I am your father.”
Audience: “Yeah, we knew that four hours ago.”

Luke: “Leia, you’re my sister.”
Audience: (snore)

Obi-Wan: “I have something here for you. Your father wanted you to have this when you were old enough, but your uncle wouldn’t allow it.”
Audience: “So, like… can Obi-Wan see Qui-Gonn Jinn at this moment, or did the practice in exile not work?”

Audience: “Hey, how come the ships don’t have those cool displays any more?”

Grr. The transition from “Revenge of the Sith” to “A New Hope” will be a horrible, horrible lurch. I guess that was always predictable, but there is scant effort to even make the two sets of three films feel similar in tone or mood.

Geek business aside, Ewan Macgregor is pretty good in it, and goes a little way to filling the charm void in the first two prequels. Hayden Christensen is largely awful, Natalie Portman is awful, even Samuel L Jackson looks bad. Ian McDiarmid is oddly camp, and appears to believe he is in pantomime. He looks like he knows he’s too classy for this.

Ultimately, this hollow, deadening feeling is exactly what I felt after watching the previous two prequels. A dreadful sense of pointlessness hangs over these films; created not to make a good cinematic experience, but to further wring dry the wallets of the devoted. Bleurgh.

Hero

Chinese-language films released in this post-Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon age have to fight twice as hard as they would have done in the past – not only against a sometimes xenophobic public unused to reading subtitles and the ponderous pace of many Asian films, but also against Ang Lee’s film, which towers over all like… well, like Chow Yun Fat up a bamboo pole.

Last year, a new challenger entered the willow-enclosed sand Chinese garden to battle – Kill Bill, which offered grindcore violence and American wit in place of the deeper philosophies usually on display in these sorts of films. It is, then, strange to see a “Quentin Tarantino Presents” credit on the posters for Ying xiong, as it appears to be exactly the sort of source material that Tarantino drew from for Kill Bill – watching Hero is a bit like eating a lovely piece of chicken after you’ve just had chicken soup. I trust that you can imagine what this is like.

The first thing to mention, then, is the look of this film. Entirely unlike Western film-making, this is created with a painterly eye – the colours are bold and beautiful, slow-motion shots of billowing silks fill the screen, and the scenery and landscapes of China are simply breathtaking. The Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle is just at the top of his game here. Extraordinary.

The story concerns Jet Li’s Nameless police constable and his dealings with the three deadly assassins that attempt to kill the first Emperor of China. The story begins with him arriving at the future-Emperor’s palace with the three assassins’ weapons, and the story of how he won them is told three times in flashback, each with a different inclination and motive as Nameless grows to respect the King he has previously only served.

So far, so staple – people have compared the story to everything from Rashomon to Star Trek II : The Wrath Of Khan – and the themes are epic ones – duty, service, respect, love, honour – but like a good haiku, the real mark of quality is in the way you depict the rice blossom fluttering to the ground. (And that is beautifully, did I mention that?)

The acting is great – Jet Li can kick some ass and is a pleasingly warm enigmatic figure, without the unpleasant mugging of, say, Chow Yun Fat. Particularly easy on the eye is Zhang Ziyi – given not a huge amount to do but look fine and have lovely hair.

Ah yes. The ass kicking.

Used sparingly and surrounded by superb Chinese philosophy, the invention and panache of the fight scenes are up there with the best this genre has to offer. Wei Tung does things Yuen Wo Ping dreams of, the wire-fu is balletic and graceful and used with restraint, and there’s this really cool bit with a stick. The only minor gripe I have is the use of CGI, although I contradict myself wildly by saying the bit with the yellow leaves is worth watching out for.

Taken as a whole, Ying xiong is definitely worth a watch if you’re in a worthy mood. Miramax have marketed this well, and the cinema – although filled with Islington trendies on an Orange Wednesday – was full. It’s also a film well worth seeing in a cinema – it won’t be the same on DVD (or on your computer screen, Limewire-fans!)