I had a Stephen Frears double-bill this weekend. Starting with a film I’d heard a lot about but had never seen:
Ten years later, after ratting on his old mobster friends in exchange for personal immunity, two hit men drive a hardened criminal to Paris for his execution. However, while on the way, whatever can go wrong, does go wrong.
This film opens with Terrance Stamp testifying in court against his gangster crew. They get sent to prison he gets sent into exile - living in rural Spain. After a decade in the sun his old gang catch up with him, he’s kidnapped and the gang start a roadtrip across Spain into France where he is to be executed.
I don’t know why I let this pass me by for so long because it was amazing. And can stand alongside classics of the British-gangster genre like The Long Good Friday and Get Carter.
To start with the cast are uniformly excellent. Terrance Stamp radiates cool but shot through with intelligence and vulnerability. The two hitmen are played by John Hurt, who looks immaculate in his suit and sunglasses, and a baby Tim Roth, all bravado and swagger but we learn early on this is his first job so we can be sure it won’t go smoothly.
As their journey across Spain progresses we see the power dynamics between the 3 shift over and over. But it’s done in such a subtle way you almost don’t notice it until you realise two characters are now working against the other but the two allies really shouldn’t be allies. When they kidnap a woman this complicates the dynamic even further.
Every scene was a little masterclass in tension and shows the skill of the director. A stop for petrol or a rest break at a roadside cantina turns into an exercise in paranoia that the Coen brothers would be proud off. One of the films this put in my head was No Country for Old Men.
The photography and the camera work are really impressive and while there’s a few unorthodox shots it never feels flashy - just the right option for that scene. There’s a bit
When the camera goes down the outside of a tower-block while the characters are making their way down the stairs.
I can’t praise this enough - every aspect of it is top class. You know how some films try hard to be ‘cool’ but end up just being naff - something like Baby Driver. But some films are just effortlessly cool - well this is one of those.
It’s a really superior thriller and I know it’s a cliche but they don’t make films like this any more.
(I thought this essay was really good and summed up why I found this so rewarding
A small-time conman has torn loyalties between his estranged mother and new girlfriend--both of whom are high-stakes grifters with their own angles to play.
Another film I was aware off but somehow had never seen. John Cusack is a low-level conman running $10 scams in bars - he’s not very successful and takes the occasional beating when he gets caught. He ends up in hospital and his mother comes back into his life. It turns out she runs scams for the mob. This sets up a nice three-way tension between Cusack, his mother and his girlfriend. They’re all scamming in one way or another.
I thought this was a really bleak but fantastic film. Based on a Jim Thompson novel but set in the 90’s it has a great, sleazy feel to it. You’re never sure who’s scamming who and it’s constantly surprising. There’s a great tension between the 3 leads and like The Hit the power dynamics are constantly shifting.
The acting is excellent - the three leads, John Cusack, Anette Benning and Anjelica Huston are all superb. And there’s a load of great faces in support roles - Steven Tobolowsky, JT Walsh and others. I loved the 90’s-ness of it, the suits and the cars. It looks great, there’s a nice soundtrack and an amazing ending.
Another excellent Frears work.