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Tag Archive: John le Carre


Review by C.J. Bunce

At the beginning of Daniel Craig’s first foray as James Bond in 2006’s Casino Royale, Craig redefined Bond as viewers were taken back to his first kill, the event that earned Bond his 00 status.  The scene instantly set the standard for the modern fight-or-die scene.  This is the exact level of hand-to-hand combat viewers will be treated to in the new summer release, Atomic Blonde.  Charlize Theron terrifically portrays what everyone always wanted to see: a woman in the role of James Bond.  Sure, she has a different name, but Theron is believable just the same as a spy being interrogated by heads of MI6 at the end of a mission.  As she tells her story, in every way she convinces us that she could go head-to-head with, and maybe even knock out Craig’s tough and bloody version of the Brit master spy.  Only don’t think this is a typical Bond movie.  It isn’t.  It’s layered, more like The Usual Suspects or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, only better–less cerebral and more fun.  And Theron chalks up another badass cinematic heroine, resulting in a film that is easily worth the admission price.

Based on Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City from Oni Press, Atomic Blonde follows the original, focusing on several nations’ spies trying to recover a secret list of agents being smuggled out of East Germany just before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.  Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, a no-nonsense top-level spy, with attitude and style, battered and bruised from some recent epic encounter when we meet her at the beginning of the movie.  She’s being interrogated and debriefed by both British and American agency heads, with John Goodman (Argo, 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Big Lebowski, Monsters, Inc.) as the American and Toby Jones (Captain America: The First Avenger, Snow White and the Huntsman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Doctor Who) as the Brit.  What unfolds is a smartly constructed Cold War thriller, more complicated than Ian Fleming but not as complicated as John le Carré, but enough so that it may lose viewers a few times along the way.  Ultimately Broughton finds herself trying to smuggle out of the country a German officer who memorized the secret spy list, played by Eddie Marsan (Sherlock Holmes, The Illusionist, V for Vendetta, The World’s End).  The rewards and payoffs come not only at the resolution but in several scenes along the way, as Theron punches, kicks, hammers, fires, splatters, mows down, stabs, punctures… everything but bites her way through dozens of bad guys trying to kill her.  The violence is extreme, but it all works–it’s great fun much like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s or Chuck Norris’s blockbuster rampages in the 1980s–and it’s not gratuitous like a Quentin Tarentino bloodbath (blown-off heads aside).

The Atomic Blonde of the title comes from Broughton’s short, 1980s style hair, and that length allows us to see that much of the time Theron is actually doing her own punching, and taking plenty of punches, from all these men.  She’s quicker, and she prepares herself for many of her punches and bruises by soaking in a tub of water filled with ice cubes–a concept that helps her more than once throughout the film.  The story and action really kicks in as Broughton begins to smuggle Marsan’s character out of the country and as the steps are laid out in a subplot involving her mission to assassinate Satchel, a double agent known for selling secrets to the Soviets.  It’s exciting like the real-life story told in Ben Affleck’s hit film Argo, where a spy smuggled a group of would-be hostages out of Iran in 1980.  Atomic Blonde has less subtlety and nuance than Argo, but Atomic Blonde similarly displays an early, retro style of storytelling compelling enough to keep viewers interested.  Does it feel like a comic book adaptation?  Sure.  Like History of Violence and Road to Perdition.  In fact Broughton could be Hit Girl from Kick-Ass all grown up.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

(spoiler free)

Roger Ebert once said that he hesitated calling the movie Caligula the worst movie ever made, even though he believed it, because he thought that would drive certain types of viewers to actually see the movie.  Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is not the worst movie ever made.  But it is a contender for the most boring.  Where The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was over-packed with too much of everything it tried to be, Tinker, Tailor suffers from offering the viewer too little.  Tinker, Tailor promises to be sophisticated.  It is not.  It is marketed as being absorbing.  It is very far from that.

Some stories suffer from the battle between showing and telling us, showing us too much without dialogue to allow us to understand what is going on, telling us too much by having characters explain background to other characters who would really already know everything that is being said.  There is neither showing nor telling in Tinker, Tailor.  There is just a lot of slow, agonizing slow movement, no linear structure, and no perceptible plot.  No way to sleuth out the riddle, no red herrings, no intrigue.  Nothing relevant, nothing big at stake any current audience will care about.  Men staring at other men and not talking for uncomfortable stretches of time.  All supposedly intended to demonstrate some sophisticated moviemaking.  In the end, no coherent point emerged.  Halfway through the film I wondered if the theater would return my money or whether the course of the movie would change, or whether I should just ride it out.  I did.  So many scenes of nothing happening make it hard to watch the screen–my mind wanted to wander off into anything else.

The cast of actors, of course, was top notch.  But they would have been better utilized with a better story.  And even if John le Carre’s novel is as boring as this film, you would think the director would have accepted the challenge to try to make some of the scenes exciting, or at least mildly interesting.  Tinker, Tailor is not even mildly interesting as stories go.  Key missing elements:  There is no plot development.  There is no character development.  There is no reason given to like any character.  There is no building of suspense.  There is no payoff at the end.  There is an excruciatingly long beginning that merges with an equally long middle and end.  There is a lot of seat fidgeting-wishing you hadn’t sat in a middle seat so you could more easily escape to get some caffeine to make it through the rest of the film, maybe loiter in the hallway.

This perhaps explains why it was only initially run in limited release, and why it is still only playing in a few theaters around the country.  Why message boards are full of viewers asking questions.  Fans of the great roster of actors in the film, including this reviewer, could hardly wait to see this movie.  Here it was one of our ten most highly anticipated films of 2012.  It could be that such expectation makes the resulting movie that much more disappointing, yet even with little anticipation the average viewer must be befuddled with what is displayed on-screen.

I had read early reviews out of L.A. and NYC, half of which referred to Tinker, Tailor as boring.  Why did I brush those off?  The cast of actors.  If a friend of yours recommends this movie to you, ask yourself some questions.  Is this person really a friend?  All that said, I am not angry about seeing this film.  It may very well be that the lesson of this film is that, despite all the excitement we see in spy movies like the James Bond films, real spy work is as boring as any other job.  But I don’t go to movies to see real life.  I want escapism.  And I truly wanted to see these actors acting.  Ultimately I like the humans behind the roles and want to see more of them.  It is just unfortunate they all landed in this film.  Look at the great actors in the film one by one:

Gary Oldman.  Folks who rave that Oldman should be nominated for an Oscar for this role are really crediting him with his past work and potential, not the work in this film.  Most of the film is Oldman staring at the viewer blankly as others speak to him.  Or, as happens far too much in this picture, he is “en route” to someplace or “biding time” between scenes where normally there would be some action.  This includes Oldman, with glasses on, wading in a pond.  More than once.  For no reason.  What is he thinking?  Who knows?  Or Oldman walking upstairs.  Or waiting outside.  Or sitting in a car.  Is it that hard for an actor to sit still?  Now compare that to his stunning performances as Sirius Black in the Harry Potter films, as the villain in The Fifth Element, as Commissioner Gordon in The Dark Knight, where, in each of these films, he was visibly passionate and demonstrated his acting range in riveting ways.  You would call nothing in Tinker, Tailor riveting.

Colin Firth.  Who doesn’t like Colin Firth?  He was Best Actor at last year’s Oscars.  All women love this guy.  He has a solid range of talent, whether in The King’s Speech, or Pride and Prejudice, or The English Patient, or Shakespeare in Love.  He is just wasted in this film on a character that gets little screen-time and when he does get screen-time it is all about his good looks.  Make no mistake, this is not another “Colin Firth movie.”

Ciaran Hinds.  Some of the best acting I have ever seen on film includes scenes featuring Ciaran Hinds, whether in Jane Eyre, Road to Perdition, The Sum of All Fears, Phantom of the Opera, or Munich–Hinds has incredible stage presence, and when he plays a character gravely it is palpable.  Like Firth, he is wasted here.  Worse yet, he pretty much vanishes at the end of the film with no resolution to his character’s story.

John Hurt.  At least Hurt gets to show what he can do, as a paranoid, hyper-intense spy leader.  But his scenes are pitched at us, often in unsuspecting flashbacks such as an earlier Christmas party that repeatedly underwhelms and is over-used, and his role, purpose, backstory and knowledge of the focus of the story is never made clear to the viewer.  For more than 40 years, back to The Man for All Seasons, to I, Claudius, to The Elephant Man, Alien, Skeleton Key, and V for Vendetta, he doesn’t miss a beat in his often bizarre roles.  Again, it is too bad the film can’t match his talent.

To be sure, the film does not suffer from the skills of any of its talented actors.

I can identify three saving graces for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which gives someone credit for trying, and rewards the casting director, composer, and the set designer for adding some realistic circa 1973 British style.

The soundtrack is quite good.  It is the soundtrack of an early 1970s suspense thriller.  Yet despite this, the movie never remotely matches the intensity of the ambitious musical score.  The composer Alberto Iglesias creates ambiance, and he, along with the production designer Maria Djurkovic, make you think you’re getting, and wish for, a suspenseful 1970s era film like All the President’s Men, or Three Days of the Condor.  In the opening scenes I kept looking across the screen, waiting for this to turn into a British version of our mob movies, like The Untouchables.  The look and feel is there, thanks to the composer and set designer.  But that story…  It’s like someone giving you a book with all the pages glued together.

The other saving grace is the young secondary cast members.  It is great to see them have the opportunity to develop their dramatic acting sea-legs working alongside such great older actors as Oldman, Firth, Hinds, and Hurt.  As a viewer, you wonder what they will be working on in their 40s:

Tom Hardy.  As the young clone of Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: Nemesis, Hardy got his first international attention.  Here, his passionate performance gives the audience something to hope for in the story.  It’s never fruitful, but Hardy is fun to watch, and his own hopelessness almost makes us want to care about the storyline.  The best surprise in the film was seeing that Tom Hardy can act.

Benedict Cumberbatch.  He plays a lackey for most of the film, Oldman’s sidekick, but gets a few chances to shine that he takes full advantage of.  Cumberbatch is not a typical looking lead actor but he is engaging, and in all of his roles he commands viewers’ attention.

Which leaves us with the best performance in the movie, that of Mark Strong (nee Marco Giuseppe Salussolia), who dazzled as the villain in the Robert Downey, Jr. movie Sherlock Holmes, and gave us the best part of the movie Green Lantern, playing Sinestro.  I point out Strong’s real name because he reminded me in the film very much of another good, and under-utilized, actor often seen in Italian roles, Andy Garcia (The Untouchables, The Godfather, Part III, Dead Again, Ocean’s Eleven) (who actually is not Italian but from Cuba).  Strong’s performance is nuanced, and we actually get to see his character go through a range of circumstances.  Of course, like the rest of the film, they take us on a slow ride to nowhere.  Still, if Tinker, Tailor leaves us with anything, we have the promise of great future careers for Strong, Cumberbatch, and Hardy.

Despite what you see in movie marketing, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy lacks anything riveting, lacks suspense, lacks basic elements of story like plot.  It lacks all the excitement that makes a typical spy movie enjoyable.  It feigns sophistication, but unlike something like the TV series Mad Men, it is only a pretender.  Unfortunately it is not worth your 127 minutes or $5-10 for any other feature of the film, such as performances by the top-level cast, and if you must see it, you might wait until the video release–and you can thank me later for waiting until you can use the fast forward on your remote to get through all the scenes where nothing happens.  If you go, don’t be surprised if you walk out and join countless commenters on message boards asking “what just happened?”  Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is in theaters in general release beginning this weekend. 1 of 5 stars.

BTW, the movie’s official website must be open to criticism, which is commendable.  Here this very review was re-posted on their web page:

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