Eric German | Sunday, 30 November 2008

Burning subject, cold treatment - **

Ridley Scott seldom disappoints me but I felt very short changed by his Body of Lies.
Rather than a narrative proper, the screenplay consists of a huge number of incidents as it follows CIA Operative Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) in the Middle East where he fights terrorism from a ground level and Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), who watches his actions via satellite in the CIA’s Langley headquarters.
Ferris, who often disagrees with Hoffman’s methods, gains the trust and co-operation of the head of Jordanian Intelligence, Hani (Mark Strong). He agrees to help Ferris in trying to capture master terrorist Al-Saleem (Alon Aboutboul) but Hoffman joins them in Amman where his impatience endangers their plans and friendship.
Given that Body of Lies has so much going for it, it’s a shame that Scott has made so little of it. This is a burning and contemporary subject but the treatment is often cold and detached.
Even visually, it’s not an interesting film and it’s surprising to find that both the action sequences and tense ones, like the opening encounter between Ferris and a terrorist who’s seeking asylum, are directed and shot with indifference.
Scott may have been too anxious to avoid any trace of exploitation, but whatever the reason, the result is a film that doesn’t communicate well.
The clash between Ferris and Hoffman is considerably weakened because, apart from Hoffman’s stay in Amman, they literally remain worlds apart.
One has to keep up with so much information that it becomes tiring and being very attentive isn’t very rewarding as was the case with the superior Syriana. Then there’s the location hopping- America, Holland, Iraq, Jordan and Syria- and of course, the locations within these countries. It’s too convoluted.
At an advanced stage, the film improves and most of that is due to Hani being portrayed perfectly by Mark Strong who manages to personify both the character’s suave charms and values and his ruthless efficiency and brutality when he feels the need arises.
Even the frequent change of locales ends as the film finally settles down in Amman where a lot of it takes place.
The setting up of a fake terrorist organisation to flush Al-Saleem out of hiding is absorbing. But once the objective is achieved the previously high stakes wind down to a melodramatic ploy that looks very out of place, though the coda compensates for it.
Overall, my impression was that of a film which, for too long, kept running in circles round its topic instead of getting to grips with it.

A pain by any other name - *

“I don’t believe in heaven. I believe in pain. I believe in fear. I believe in death,” Payne (Mark Wahlberg) declares in the opening voice over. But these strongly negative beliefs only usher in yet another film of a video game.
Payne is a homicide detective who’s investigating a cold case, that of the murder of his wife and child. It’s a slender tanga of a plot that’s been padded out to a hugely overlong one hour and 40 minutes by piling on too many characters and too many dreary visits to offices and buildings.
Then there are those who have the same blue tattoo and who are addicted to a blue liquid which makes them feel invincible but which also gives them hallucinations of winged creatures who cause their death.
The exteriors are greyish and it’s either snowing or raining. The interiors tend to be dark and drab. The colour has been desaturated to the right degree so that it’s constantly promising a film noir but all we get is the gloom.
Wahlberg strides through it in stone face mode, there’s no characterisation and the wasted supporting cast includes Beau Bridges as Payne’s former partner and Mila Kunis as Mona Sax whose sister may have something in common with Max’s widow: the same killer.
The only one who isn’t wasted is Olga Kurylenko who’s everything she should have been in Quantum of Solace. She’s sexy, simultaneously vulnerable and challenging and a dynamic screen presence. She’s the only one who brings the film to life for a few minutes, but she’s written out of the script after her single appearance.
The action takes a long time to start but, as if trying to make up for lost time, the first action set piece has Payne single-handedly shooting it out with a SWAT team. The solution to the mystery is one of those conspiracies that screenwriters take out of their book of clichés when they’re just as lost as the audience.

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