Although its Mideast trappings have become terribly familiar in any number of recent movies from Syriana to The Kingdom to director Ridley Scott’s own Black Hawk Down William Monaghan’s (The Departed) tight script still has pertinent things to say about the lies and deceptions inherent in our covert operations in the region. Cloaked in a cat and mouse thriller format the story centers on Roger Ferris (DiCaprio)--a top CIA operative fluent in the Arab language-- who roams from country to country trying to penetrate top secret terrorist cells and uncover plans for mayhem. In trying to smoke out a shadowy terrorist who has been directing a series of key bombings against civilian targets in Europe Ferris comes up with the ingenious idea to create a phony rival group that appears to be taking credit for the “real” Al Qaeda-type organization’s business. Complicating matters for Ferris is his boss Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe) back at CIA headquarters who sees the world in black and white and believes there is no such thing as going too far to achieve goals in the best interest of the U.S. Both must also deal with the head of Jordanian Intelligence Hani Salaam (Mark Strong) who recognizes that each is useful for his own counter-terrorism efforts. There are a LOT of explosions that keep getting in the way of the dramatics--and much of the Crowe/DiCaprio teaming is played out on opposite sides of a phone line. But Body of Lies incorporates a first-rate cast including many local Middle Eastern performers who make strong impressions. Crowe--adopting some sort of quasi-southern accent (apparently from Arkansas)--creates an amusing CIA boss who sees the world from one perspective--his. Juxtaposing his duties to family as well as America Crowe creates a full blooded portrait of a husband father and CIA lifer who thinks he knows all the answers. His few scenes when he is face to face with co-star DiCaprio are worth the wait and both stars play off each other with ease. DiCaprio is back in Blood Diamond territory here as a rogue operative using his own ingenuity to make a difference. His on-screen command of some Arabic phrases is unforced and impressive and he earns the audience’s empathy particularly when he winds up in well over his head. There are also some nice scenes opposite a Muslim nurse he strikes up a relationship with while in the hospital. Iranian star Golshifteh Farahani is beautiful and nicely understated in these moments. Strong who also is very fine in another of the week’s new releases RocknRolla is suave and powerful as the shrewd Jordanian Crowe and DiCaprio cross swords with. Other regional actors fill out their roles with uncommon authenticity. There can be no question Ridley Scott is a master of the film medium. Body of Lies moves very well and thanks to the Scott style manual has lots of urgency. Employing his usual use of multiple cameras getting simultaneous angles in every scene Scott doesn’t rely on actors having to do a lot of takes and in the process manages to give the film a documentary kind of feel. Although the filmmaking approach sometimes leads to more confusion than we would like it also puts us right in the center of the action. And there’s plenty of that. Working for the fourth time with Crowe the two clearly have a rapport and similar seat-of-the-pants way of working which DiCaprio seems to have picked up nicely. If this isn’t as impressive an overall achievement as Black Hawk Down it’s still an entertainment that is a cut above some of the other recent spate of Middle East-set thrillers. Locations are well used too with Northern Africa and specifically the Moroccan environs filling in for the some dozen countries identified on the screen.
Finally a brilliantly told fractured fairy tale for children and adults alike that does not feature a grouchy green orge anywhere. Once upon a time a young man sneaks into the mysterious magic kingdom of Stormhold that’s walled off from his quiet English village. He soon meets a lovely young lady who just so happens to be a princess enslaved by a not-so-wicked witch. Nine months later a basket is dropped on his doorstep. Yes this baby boy is the unexpected result of his one-night liasion with the royal lass. The boy grows up blissfully unaware of his regal roots so when he reaches manhood Tristan (Charlie Cox) doesn’t understand why he so drawn to the land on the other side of the Wall. He finally hops over the Wall when a star falls out of the sky and lands deep in the heart of Stormhold. His goal: to bring back the star as proof of his love for Victoria (Sienna Miller). Too bad this scheming temptress doesn’t think too much of the penniless and mild-mannered workingclass stiff. This being a fairy tale the star isn’t just a star. The star’s actually a beautiful celestial being named Yvaine (Claire Danes). And she fell to earth as part of a devious plan by Stormhold’s dying king (Peter O'Toole) to determine his successor. But the king’s scheming sons (Jason Flemying and Mark Strong) are not the only ones seeking Yvaine. The oh-so-wicked witch Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer) needs Yvaine to help her restore her youth. So that means Tristan must become the hero he’s destined to become—and take on witches princes airbourne pirates (Robert De Niro’s Capt. Shakespeare) and shady black marketeers (The Office’s Ricky Gervais)—so he can return home to Victoria. But Cupid has other plans for Tristran and it’s not hard to guess what those are. If all stars took on the human form of Claire Danes many more of us would probably pursue a career in astronomy. But it doesn’t take a working knowledge of the Hubble telescope to see how relaxed and luminous Danes is when she’s not carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. And sparks definitely fly between Danes and Charlie Cox even when they’re at hurling hilarious insults at each other. Newcomer Cox makes a smooth transition from ill-at-ease lovesick puppy to swashbuckling hero. He also doesn’t seem to be intimidated at the prospect of staring down Robert De Niro. There’s always concern whenever De Niro takes on a comedic role for a big paycheck. He usually gets by with pure talent and nothing more. And when De Niro’s pirate crosses paths with Cox and Danes you immediately fear that he’s going to offer yet another variation on his tough gruff Alpha males from Analyze This and Meet the Parents. But he blindsides us by instead going all Jack Sparrow on us—that is if the old sea dog had no interest in the ladies—to deliriously campy effect. What with Hairspray and now Stardust Michelle Pfeiffer’s comeback seems to be predicated on getting in touch with her inner bitch. She’s splendidly nasty and scary as Lamia. And the uglier and older she gets the meaner and funnier she gets. Equally cruel—though more cheerfully so—is Sienna Miller. Providing small but amusing cameos are Gervais once again revealing an unparallel mastery of toadying and Peter O'Toole who kicks the bucket quicker than John Cleese’s King Harold does in Shrek the Third. There’s legitimate reason to question whether Layer Cake director Matthew Vaughn has what it takes to direct a big-budget effects-driven summer blockbuster. Remember after making his name producing or directing relatively inexpensive British crime capers Vaughn walked away from X-Men: The Last Stand. Judging by Stardust though Vaughn would have done a masterful job leading those misunderstood mutants into battle. Then again he couldn’t have done worse than Brett Ratner. Based on the graphic novel by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess Stardust possesses both a big heart and an uncommon adventurous streak. Unlike the recent Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End which was too long and too cumbersome for its own good Stardust moves nimbly and confidently through a strange and wonderful land populated with noble heroes to cheer for fiendish villains to boo at and gorgeous damsels in distress to sigh over. Vaughn keeps us on the edge of our seats whenever Tristan must think or fight his way out of danger. But he invests as much time in making believe that Tristan and Yvaine are made for each other. He also strikes a fine balance between honoring the sword-and-sorcery genre while playfully sending up its many cliches. The humor’s a lot more risqué than the bedtime story that was The Princess Bride but most of the sexual innuendoes will zoom over the heads of those still too young to pick up on many of Shrek’s pop-cultural references. Clearly Stardust cannot escape all other comparisons to The Princess Bride but Stardust boasts more than enough magic and daring-do to win over those who remained enthralled to this day by Cary Elwes’ brave efforts to rescue a kidnapped Robin Wright Penn. So this is one fairy tale that richly deserves its happily ever after--and for that matter so does Vaughn.
As a thinking man’s actioner Ultimatum continues the franchise’s firm grasp on how spy games are actually played. The film starts at the point where Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is in Moscow having killed the assassin from Bourne Supremacy in a car crash. He has exacted his revenge for his girlfriend’s death but he is still haunted and needs to know how the hell he got into this predicament in the first place. Plus he’s got a new CIA schmuck Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) after him. Vosen has reopened the Treadstone project--now called Blackbriar--and is using a new cache of highly trained assassins to do his dirty work. Luckily for Bourne he’s got two women on his side: CIA lackey Pam Landy (Joan Allen) who while in the situation room tries to thwart Vosen at every turn; and Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) the young logistician who covers for Bourne whenever she runs into him. With their help our intrepid assassin circumvents the globe in typical Bourne fashion so he can hunt down his past in order to find a future. Damon has truly perfected his Bourne alter ego in this third go-around. With his cool demeanor he really makes it all look so effortless--jet-setting around the world fighting enemies off with pens books towels cars whatever he can get his hands on and covertly obtaining the information he needs. Damon is an accomplished actor no doubt able to take on a variety of roles--but he may never quite top Bourne. Damon is also surrounded by a top-notch supporting cast. In both Supremacy and Ultimatum Allen as Landy stands out in the crowd of power-hungry men she works for and with infusing the proceedings with a steely intelligence--and ultimately compassion. Stiles too is a breath of fresh air in the otherwise testosterone-filled environment and her Nicky may actually have more of connection to Bourne than we previously thought. The stellar Strathairn a character actor who can play both hero and villain with relative ease adds the sneaky Vosen to his list of bad guys while Albert Finney makes a brief but memorable appearance as a link to Bourne’s past. Helming his second Bourne installment after getting our hearts pounding with Supremacy Paul Greengrass (United 93) gets it. Although the Bournes sprouted from the furtive mind of spy-thriller author Robert Ludlum the director seems keyed into the whole spy genre as well handing us what feels to be a genuine look at how covert operations might work. From the operations center in which CIA personnel can find ways to tap into a target’s life via any number of ways to the action on the streets Greengrass keeps it moving at a whiplash pace. We’ve now come to expect the seat-clenching car chases along with at least one hand-to-hand combat scene between Bourne and some other super assassin in which Bourne kills his attacker with sheer brute force aided by some everyday item. Still they never seem redundant flowing nicely into the storyline. Greengrass’ filmmaking style however can be a tad jolting at times. He loves putting the audience in the middle of the action swinging the camera around fast-cutting between shots keeping things slightly confusing on who’s doing what to whom. But that real-time look and feel is what makes the Bourne movies unique from other actioners. Could there be room for a fourth Bourne? One can only hope.
The Crusades were a series of religious wars in which the Christians tried to reclaim Jerusalem from the Muslims who had conquered the Middle East in the 7th century. With the battle cry of "God wills it! " thousands of Europeans answered the call and were able to retake the fabled Holy City in the 11th century. Kingdom of Heaven begins in 1186 between the Second and Third Crusades. A fragile peace prevails mostly through the efforts of Jerusalem's enlightened Christian king Baldwin IV (Edward Norton) and the military restraint of the legendary Muslim leader Saladin (Ghassan Massoud). But it's difficult to maintain the peace. There are extremists within the Christian brigades--known as the Knights Templar--who want to wipe every Muslim off the face of the Earth. On top of that King Baldwin's health is failing. Once he's gone war is sure to follow. If ever there was a need for a hero this is the time. Enter the young French blacksmith Balian (Orlando Bloom) who is in deep despair over the loss of his family. He joins the Crusades after the father he never knew Godfrey (Liam Neeson) comes back from Jerusalem and convinces him it's a quest worth fighting for. As Godfrey passes his sword to his son he also passes on that sacred knightly oath: to protect the helpless safeguard the peace and work toward harmony between religions and cultures so that a kingdom of heaven can flourish on earth. No pressure or anything though.
Orlando Bloom carries his first major motion picture very well easily handling the chores of being such a gallant conscientious and morally upstanding knight. As Balian the Troy costar plays the gamut. He broods over his lost wife and child has father-son epiphanies upholds his knightly duties on a regular basis falls in love with a beautiful but troubled princess and finally bravely defends the Holy City from the encroaching Muslim army thus becoming a legend. Not bad for a day's work eh? There are even times especially toward the end when Balian is standing before the denizens of Jerusalem urging them to fight when you swear you can see a little of Bloom's The Lord of the Rings alter-elf Legolas creep in. The supporting cast also does an adequate job painting a picture of some trying times. Chief among them: Jeremy Irons as King Baldwin's right-hand man Tiberias; Marton Csokas (The Bourne Supremacy) as the evil leader of the Knights Templar; Massoud as the great warrior Saladin; and lovely Eva Green (The Dreamers) as Princess Sibylla King Baldwin's sister who captures our hero's heart but makes some bad choices with dire consequences.
Even if these sword-and-armor epics are all blending together you've got to give props to the directors who make them. These films are massive undertakings and Kingdom of
Heaven with the expert Ridley Scott at the helm is no exception. The Oscar-winning director of course has had his fair share of recreating history first with the classic Gladiator and then with the contemporary Black Hawk Down. But in recreating the Crusades Scott faces his toughest challenge to date and takes on the responsibility very seriously. He is painstakingly meticulous with details even as he is building a 12th-century Jerusalem or corralling 2 000 heavily costumed extras for the colossal climactic battle sequences. And it is always a good thing when a historical film can teach you something you may not have known like what the heck the Crusades were really all about. No Kingdom's biggest obstacle is timing. While it certainly has more substance than Alexander it is not nearly as intense and stirring as The Lord of the Rings trilogy or the granddaddy of them all Braveheart. Too many of its ilk has come before and the concept has unfortunately worn thin.