Skip to main content

I hold neither a symbol nor a gun. My hands are empty. Which of you will take them?

The Next Man
(1976)

(SPOILERS) In which Sean Connery plays an Arab. For the second time. His versatility when confronted by the challenge of portraying different nationalities and ethnicities is renowned, of course. Russians (The Hunt for Red October), Irish (The Untouchables), Greeks (Time Bandits), even Japanese (You Only Live Twice); they’re no problem for one of Sean’s calibre, all arriving fully bestowed with a recognisable Scottish burr. For some reason, this rarely matters (well, You Only Live Twice features an egregiously ridiculous makeover); Connery forces the world to reform around him by sheer dint of presence. So the role of Khalil Abdul-Muhsen, Saudi Arabian Minister of State determined to broker Middle Eastern peace elicits a nod of “Yeah, okay, I’ll go with that”. The rest of The Next Man (also known as The Arab Conspiracy and Double Hit) isn’t nearly so easy to give a free pass to, however.


Perhaps it was the success of the previous years The Wind in the Lion, where Connery played a Berber brigand (who wouldn’t want to be able to say they played a Berber brigand?), which attracted the Scot to the character (most infamously, Connery would later play an Egyptian posing as a Spaniard in Highlander). Or perhaps it was the lure of shooting in the Bahamas (which the actor would call home from the 1990s onwards). Or it could simply have been his occasionally political bent (which in the real world has seen him call, albeit remotely, for Scottish independence). The same awareness that found him make satire Wrong is Right and stumbling eco-thriller Medicine Man. If the latter, it’s a particular shame, as The Next Man is a half-baked concoction from the screenplay (credited to four writers) through to the direction from Richard C Sarafian (one of those co-writers, whose finest moment came with counter-culture road movie Vanishing Point and lowest with an Alan Smithee pseudonym for Solar Crisis).


There’s a kernel of a good idea at the front end of the picture, whereby an unnamed shadowy group is outraged that “a faction within the Arab organisation of oil producing states has entered into a conspiracy” to create “a production consortium competitive to our own”. Everything about this group is sketchy (full disclosure: I didn’t see the108 minute version of the movie, so I may have missed vital plot details or scenes that transform it into a neglected classic, or at least clarify matters), but I would presume this is a means of saying that they represent an Illuminati-type organisation that somehow holds sway over OPEC (Khalil refers to OPEC as a now-confused voice that engineers dark deals and supports terrorist activities). At least, one wonders that this group isn’t attempting to bring it down too.


In the spirit of any conspiratorial group out to quash a conspiracy, they “take steps to neutralise this plan”, which entails an opening 15 minutes devoted to offing the three ringleaders, from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia. This could have taken three minutes and serves to establish the picture’s high fat content, rather than providing nutritious, intrigue or commentary. One of these, Al Sharif, is played by Connery’s co-star from Thunderball, Adolfo Celi.


Cue the entrance of Connery, “a tiger with soft brown eyes” and bearing a comb over rather than the full rug. Khalil was educated in the US (and Shcotland) and, as with his slain friends, appears to enjoy something of a playboy, carousing lifestyle when he’s not giving speeches to the UN.


It’s a bit of a mystery that Khalil appears to have been given carte blanche to introduce is his outrageous plan for a united Arab world, opposing the “immutable forces bent on dragging the world into holocaust”. He calls for a new contract that may replace OPEC, and the opening of a dialogue with Israel to create a Palestinian state. And he wants to look into new sources of energy (a nod to the notional suppression innovations in alternative energy by the capitalist system?) Later he appears to have a rethink when, back before the UN, he proposes that Israel joins OPEC as a non-producing member and equal partner. He wishes to be free of “the destructive political and economic influences which have been exerted upon us by the East and the West”, that have strangled them for centuries. To cap it all he defies those who would keep the Arabs and Israelis enemies.


Khalil apparently runs with the idea that Israel and the Arab states are unwittingly pitted against each other buy the mysterious puppeteers we have seen at the outset, which seems to ignore western allegiances to the Jewish state and suppliance to Saudi interests (the Saudi government apparently complained about the movie to producer Martin Bregman). There are some decent ideas in The Next Man, but they seem rather confused; it’s unwillingness to show clear antagonists looks like a cop out, while simultaneously presenting a main character with a plan that sounds like science fiction. We see much in the way of protests outside embassies; at one point brave Khalil gets out of his limo and persuades a demonstrator “Trust me, it takes time” with regard to the quest for a Palestinian state. But such topicality is off-kilter when balanced against his naïve plan.


It’s been said the picture is prescient, of the Egypt-Arab Peace Treaty that came from the Camp David accords and the assassination of Anwar Sadat that followed, but I think that gives The Next Man too much credit. It’s simply a picture born of a period when conspiracy features were a popular dish; hitting some vague marks is more luck than insight.


The big problem, however, is that this is a conspiracy movie with next to no intrigue and zero suspense. We have the cabal conferring in the opening scene, but beyond that everyone knows Khalil is putting his head in a noose (“I give him a month”; “A week” counters a fellow journalist). The picture then crawls from scene to scene as Khalil canoodles with ice queen assassin Nicole (Cornelia Sharpe). Sean displays his facility with polo necks, and professes to be a stranger in a stranger land, but having been Bond he still knows “where they serve an excellent Martini”. There’s an assassination attempt where Connery can exercise a few macho muscles, but it isn’t especially involving.


Sharpe is okay, but too cool in a sub-Dunaway manner for there to be any chemistry with her co-star. And yet, the only scenes that actually leap out involve her. We see her casually showering while leaving the drugged Celli to suffocate within a plastic bag. She then emerges, removes it, and tidies up. The ending, too late, is also pretty good. We discover that Hamid (Khalil’s right-hand man, played by Ecuadorian actor Albert Paulson) is also conspiring against his friend when he instructs Nicole to finish the job; she shoots Hamid and then Khalil (off camera), uttering “Soft brown eyes” as she does so (the title refers to Nicole’s next hit job, but is also suggestive that there’ll always be someone to take Khalil’s place just as he took the place of someone before him). 


Is Hamid working for the shadowy group? Possibly not: he may be a dupe, believing Khalil’s demise is good for his country. It’s all very murky. There’s a neatly efficient line in tying up loose ends also; the earlier assassins are dispensed with, and someone is clearly going to do the same to her after the closing credits.


If this kind of clinical Day of the Jackal approach is in the picture’s favour, it’s about all that is aside from Connery’s presence. There’s a notable brief appearance from Lance Henrickson (as Hendrickson), even smaller than his turn in the previous year’s Dog Day Afternoon. This was also Michael Kamen’s first feature credit as composer. The Next Man, like several other ‘70s Connery pictures, is bereft of the essentials in the script and direction departments. Perhaps Bregman persuaded Connery, coming off Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon and (according to Pauline Kael) looking for a star vehicle for protégée Sharp, that this was a meaningful, substantial affair. If so, Sean was sold a pup.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

They literally call themselves “Decepticons”. That doesn’t set off any red flags?

Bumblebee  (2018)
(SPOILERS) Bumblebee is by some distance the best Transformers movie, simply by dint of having a smattering of heart (one might argue the first Shia LaBeouf one also does, and it’s certainly significantly better than the others, but it’s still a soulless Michael Bay “machine”). Laika VP and director Travis Knight brings personality to a series that has traditionally consisted of shamelessly selling product, by way of a nostalgia piece that nods to the likes of Herbie (the original), The Iron Giant and even Robocop.

Look, the last time I was told the Germans had gone, it didn't end well.

1917 (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I first heard the premise of Sam Mendes’ Oscar-bait World War I movie – co-produced by Amblin Partners, as Spielberg just loves his sentimental war carnage – my first response was that it sounded highly contrived, and that I’d like to know how, precisely, the story Mendes’ granddad told him would bear any relation to the events he’d be depicting. And just why he felt it would be appropriate to honour his relative’s memory via a one-shot gimmick. None of that has gone away on seeing the film. It’s a technical marvel, and Roger Deakins’ cinematography is, as you’d expect, superlative, but that mastery rather underlines that 1917 is all technique, that when it’s over and you get a chance to draw your breath, the experience feels a little hollow, a little cynical and highly calculated, and leaves you wondering what, if anything, Mendes was really trying to achieve, beyond an edge-of-the-seat (near enough) first-person actioner.

The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.

Repo Man (1984)
In fairness, I should probably check out more Alex Cox’s later works. Before I consign him to the status of one who never made good on the potential of his early success. But the bits and pieces I’ve seen don’t hold much sway. I pretty much gave up on him after Walker. It seemed as if the accessibility of Repo Man was a happy accident, and he was subsequently content to drift further and further down his own post-modern punk rabbit hole, as if affronted by the “THE MOST ASTONISHING FEATURE FILM DEBUT SINCE STEVEN SPIELBERG’S DUEL” accolade splashed over the movie’s posters (I know, I have a copy; see below).

This is one act in a vast cosmic drama. That’s all.

Audrey Rose (1977)
(SPOILERS) Robert Wise was no stranger to high-minded horror fare when he came to Audrey Rose. He was no stranger to adding a distinctly classy flavour to any genre he tackled, in fact, particularly in the tricky terrain of the musical (West Side Story, The Sound of Music) and science fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain). He hadn’t had much luck since the latter, however, with neither Two People nor The Hindenburg garnering good notices or box office. In addition to which, Audrey Rose saw him returning to a genre that had been fundamentally impacted by The Exorcist four years before. One might have expected the realist principals he observed with The Andromeda Strain to be applied to this tale of reincarnation, and to an extent they are, certainly in terms of the performances of the adults, but Wise can never quite get past a hacky screenplay that wants to impart all the educational content of a serious study of continued existence in tandem w…

You guys sure like watermelon.

The Irishman aka I Heard You Paint Houses (2019)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps, if Martin Scorsese hadn’t been so opposed to the idea of Marvel movies constituting cinema, The Irishman would have been a better film. It’s a decent film, assuredly. A respectable film, definitely. But it’s very far from being classic. And a significant part of that is down to the usually assured director fumbling the execution. Or rather, the realisation. I don’t know what kind of crazy pills the ranks of revered critics have been taking so as to recite as one the mantra that you quickly get used to the de-aging effects so intrinsic to its telling – as Empire magazine put it, “you soon… fuggadaboutit” – but you don’t. There was no point during The Irishman that I was other than entirely, regrettably conscious that a 75-year-old man was playing the title character. Except when he was playing a 75-year-old man.