Skip to main content

Don’t ask me if it’s a just war. It’s just war.

Good Kill
(2014)

Andrew Niccol’s latest might be viewed as presenting the flipside to the earnest and venerable combatant approach of Eastwood’s American Sniper. Unfortunately, while Good Kill has a clear moral and political point of view, in contrast to Eastwood’s contextual ambivalence, it is every bit as clumsy in its storytelling.


Niccol has a knack for picking provocative subject matter, but his ability to show restraint and finesse in exploring these ideas has generally been patchy. He comes up short in Gattaca (eugenics) Lord of War (the arms trade), S1m0ne (the monster media machine) and In Time (the haves and have nots). Good Kill knows all the arguments about drone warfare. It even has Colonel Johns (Bruce Greenwood, gluing the film together) rehearsing them in an entirely unsubtle manner at every opportunity (“Make no mistake about it, this ain’t Playstation. We are killing people”). 


Co-pilot Suarez (Zoe Kravitz) inhabits the similarly obvious conscience role (the lily-livered liberal who even delivers the immortal “I didn’t sign up for this”) in response to her red-bloodedly patriotic colleagues Zimmer (Jake Abel) and Christie (Dylan Kenin). And then there’s becalmed Major Tom Egan (Ethan Hawke, making his third picture with Niccol), the on-the-surface rock but slowly-revealed burnt out. His moral fragmentation comes somewhere in the middle, as the ex “proper” pilot who just wants to get back in the cockpit of a fighter (“I don’t know what I am doing, but it’s not flying”).


Niccol makes some curious and ham-fisted choices. He’s keen to emphasise gradations of justification that don’t really fly (so to speak). At one end of the scale is CIA Langley (voiced by an unseen Peter Coyote), full of studied rhetoric but basically “collateral damaged be damned”. Anyone, anywhere in the Middle East may end up as an unfortunate casualty in the mission to eradicate the enemy. Women, children, funeral mourners, people gathered talking on a dusty road. At least the military has some standards in comparison, Niccol is saying. At least they (as in Colonel Johns) agonise over their actions and go home knowing their intentions were good (except those, like Zimmer and Christie who just want to kill anyone and everyone over there, lest they come over there and destroy everything America stands for).


On the far end is the actual “good kill”. At the climax, Egan, already demoted for purposefully fouling up a Langley mission, locks himself in the control centre and blows up the Afghan rapist who has been offending his and his fellow pilots’ sensibilities throughout  (even Zimmer averts his eyes, so what this guy is doing really is bad). It’s a triumphant moment. Egan has done right. Killed someone who really deserved it. Has he? That seems to be the message. Niccol even has the cynicism to pull out a particularly queasy moment of tension where Egan might have accidentally killed the rape victim too. But no, she’s okay. Phew. It might have served the message of the movie better if she had died. Instead Niccol encourages false uplift in a conclusion that is shamelessly emotionally manipulative.


It also makes the picture, hardly a model of restraint in the first place, seem all the more jarring and obvious in retrospect. The varied jargon used to distance the perpetrator from unprovoked acts of aggression (pre-emptive self defence is a particularly deceitful item), and avoid confessing to what is actually being ordered, initially seems quite piercing but becomes much less so as the picture progresses. 


Egan hits the bottle to like a dyed in the wool alcoholic but appears completely functional and quits with nary a withdrawal symptom. His home life dynamic (January Jones as his wife, in a big screen career that suggests her agent has something against her) is entirely clichéd, but it’s Hawke who is most problematic. He’s the stoic aviator-shades wearing seasoned serviceman, but he still carries the nervy air of his Todd Anderson from Dead Poets Society, only now slightly more desiccated.


Which isn’t to say the picture isn’t engaging. It is to be respected for being more economically told and more focussed than American Sniper. But it’s ultimately no more laudable. There is one aspect where Niccol wholly succeeds, and that’s the incongruity of the Vegas milieu from which these drone missions are fought. He convincingly portrays a life that is both repetitive and banal and psychologically and emotionally wearing. The pilots enter shipping crates in an expanse of sun-drenched tarmac for each shift, transported to a warzone thousands of miles away. They emerge into the calm of the Las Vegas desert, and then drive home to deceptively normal lives. 


This dissonance is palpable, and much more resonant than any of the verbalised arguments for and against in carrying the idea and question of just what this is. Killing with impunity, from the safety of, and divorce from, the battlefield. This might be presented as merely the latest stage in an incremental shift that has been occurring ever since the invention of the bow and arrow but, the more removed and detached the capability becomes (and the more casually civilian fatalities are brushed off), the less easy it is to frame an argument that satisfies such methods (be it legal war or illegal “but justifiable” incursion).


Niccol laces occasional moments of effective humour through the picture (“I blew away six Taliban in Pakistan today and now I’m going home to barbecue”, Egan tells a cashier; “Why do wear flight suits?” he asks Johns, genuinely baffled; at one point Zimmer opines that the reason they aim to kill so many Afghanis is that the alternative of torturing them would cost too much), but one can’t help think the surreality of this environment would have been better served by the kind of outright irreverence shown by Gregor Jordan in Buffalo Soldiers. Either that, or stripped right down to a minimal level, allowing the absurd ambience to do the talking rather than characters’ overstated interactions. Good Kill frequently feels thin and didactic despite a surfeit of ripe material to explore.




Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

What I have tried to show you is the inevitability of history. What must be, must be.

The Avengers 2.24: A Sense of History
Another gem, A Sense of History features one of the series’ very best villains in Patrick Mower’s belligerent, sneering student Duboys. Steed and Mrs Peel arrive at St Bode’s College investigating murder most cloistered, and the author of a politically sensitive theoretical document, in Martin Woodhouse’s final, and best, teleplay for the show (other notables include Mr. Teddy Bear and The Wringer).

Are you drinking the water?

A Cure for Wellness (2016)
(SPOILERS) Well, this is far more suited to Dane DeHaan’s slightly suspect shiftiness than ludicrously attempting to turn him into an outright action hero (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets). It’s not, though, equal to director Gore Verbinski’s abilities. One of Hollywood’s great visualists but seemingly languishing without a clear path since he was cast adrift from collaborating with Johnny Depp, unfortunately, he must cop most of the blame for A Cure for Wellness, since it was his idea.

There’s a whiff of Shutter Island’s pulp psychodrama tonally, as DeHaan’s unscrupulous finance company executive Lockhart is sent to a Swiss health spa to fetch back a board member vital to pressing ahead with a merger. No sooner has he reached the alpine wellness centre, resplendent in the grounds of historic castle with a dark past, than he’s involved in a car accident, leaving him with a leg in a cast and “encouragement” to recuperate on site, taking the waters …

Space is disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence.

Star Trek (2009)
(SPOILERS) If JJ Abrams’ taking up the torch of the original Star Wars trilogy had been as supremely satisfying as his Star Trek reboot, I’d have very little beef with it. True, they both fall victim to some incredibly ropey plotting, but where Star Trek scores, making it an enormously rewatchable movie, is that it gets its characters right – which isn’t to suggest it’s getting The Original Series characters right, but it’s giving us compelling new iterations of them – and sends them on emotional journeys that satisfy. If the third act is somewhat rote, its achievements up to that point put it comfortably in the top rank of Trek movies.

This here's a bottomless pit, baby. Two-and-a-half miles straight down.

The Abyss (1989)
(SPOILERS) By the time The Abyss was released in late summer ’89, I was a card carrying James Cameron fanboy (not a term was in such common use then, thankfully). Such devotion would only truly fade once True Lies revealed the stark, unadulterated truth of his filmmaking foibles. Consequently, I was an ardent Abyss apologist, railing at suggestions of its flaws. I loved the action, found the love story affecting, and admired the general conceit. So, when the Special Edition arrived in 1993, with its Day the Earth Stood Still-invoking global tsunami reinserted, I was more than happy to embrace it as a now-fully-revealed masterpiece.

I still see the Special Edition as significantly better than the release version (whatever quality concerns swore Cameron off the effects initially, CGI had advanced sufficiently by that point;certainly, the only underwhelming aspect is the surfaced alien craft, which was deemed suitable for the theatrical release), both dramatically and them…

You just keep on drilling, sir, and we'll keep on killing.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)
(SPOILERS) The drubbing Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk received really wasn’t unfair. I can’t even offer it the “brave experiment” consolation on the basis of its use of a different frame rate – not evident in itself on 24fps Blu ray, but the neutering effect of the actual compositions is, and quite tellingly in places – since the material itself is so lacking. It’s yet another misguided (to be generous to its motives) War on Terror movie, and one that manages to be both formulaic and at times fatuous in its presentation.

The irony is that Ang Lee, who wanted Billy Lynn to feel immersive and realistic, has made a movie where nothing seems real. Jean-Christophe Castelli’s adaptation of Ben Fountain’s novel is careful to tread heavily on every war movie cliché it can muster – and Vietnam War movie cliché at that – as it follows Billy Lynn (British actor Joe Alwyn) and his unit (“Bravo Squad”) on a media blitz celebrating their heroism in 2004 Iraq …

Don't give me any of that intelligent life crap, just give me something I can blow up.

Dark Star (1974)
(SPOILERS) Is Dark Star more a John Carpenter film or more a Dan O’Bannon one? Until the mid ‘80s it might have seemed atypical of either of them, since they had both subsequently eschewed comedy in favour of horror (or thriller). And then they made Big Trouble in Little China and Return of the Living Dead respectively, and you’d have been none-the-wiser again. I think it’s probably fair to suggest it was a more personal film to O’Bannon, who took its commercial failure harder, and Carpenter certainly didn’t relish the tension their creative collaboration brought (“a duel of control” as he put it), as he elected not to work with his co-writer/ actor/ editor/ production designer/ special effects supervisor again. Which is a shame, as, while no one is ever going to label Dark Star a masterpiece, their meeting of minds resulted in one of the decade’s most enduring cult classics, and for all that they may have dismissed it/ seen only its negatives since, one of the best mo…