Saturday, December 31, 2022

The Great Wall (2016)



            “The Great Wall” was the most expensive Chinese movie up to that time.  Some of that money was spent on hiring some mercenaries.  Those mercenaries were Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal, and Willem Dafoe.  You have to give credit to Damon for spending months learning archery from a world champion.  It was not just a cash grab for him (like cryptocurrency).  He’s not Bruce Willis, yet.  A good rule of thumb is you see a white actor in the cast of a Chinese or Korean movie, it’s a stinker.  Three Americans just smacks of desperation.  The movie was directed by Zhang Ysmou, who directed three movies nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards.  But the last time was “Heroes” in 2003.  Since then he made a war movie entitled “The Flowers of War”.  In that movie, the hired gun was Christian Bale and the result was predictably mediocre.  The movie was international in not just the cast.  There were over 100 translators on set to deal with the actors and crew. The Chinese government did not allow filming on the Great Wall.  Three sections of wall were constructed and CGI was also used.  The monsters in the movie were based on a legend of aliens attacking China.

            The movie opens weakly with a very CGI-looking wall.  Before you can settle in your seat, there is a chase scene to establish that William (Damon) and Pero (Pascal) are rogues.  We learn that they are in China to steal some gunpowder and bring it back to Europe.  Then European chemists can replicate it and let the more efficient killing begin and medieval war movies can have explosions!  One night they kill a monster and bring its arm to the Great Wall.  Nice calling card.  The Chinese are not surprised because the Tao Tie (think velociraptors with bad attitudes since they haven’t eaten in decades) are due for their once every sixty years onslaught.  (Don’t ask how they survived the previous ones.)  But the beasts are a week early.  Wait, can they do that?  

The whites make the acquaintance of the Nameless Order who are tasked with defending the wall.  The second in command is Lin (Jing Tian). Think Mulan as an adult.  They also encounter a European named Ballard (Willem Dafoe) who came for the same reason they did, but was captured and turned into a tutor.  They will suffer a similar fate, but a monster attack gives them the chance to exhibit their warrior cred.  The movie now enters the typical battle, exposition, battle, exposition cycle.  Everyone has come for the action (and to see Damon with lots of hair) and it does not disappoint if you love ridiculousness.  As with all epic fictional battle movies, each action scene must be topped by the next, which usually means new awesome weapons.  (Don’t ask why they were held back.)  My scorecard had this order:  1.  Flaming fire balls  2.  Amazingly accurate arrows  3.  Women warriors on bungie cords using spears (my favorite)  4.  Spiked fireballs  5.  Screaming arrows  6.  Gunpowder arrows.  Note the lack of the usual clanging.  That’s because the Tao Tie can’t hold swords.  Most of the plot developments are predictable.  William has the chance to quit the fight and return to Europe, but …  For the price of one movie, we get a second battle at the capital. And we get there by hot air balloons!

As you might guess, I came into this movie with a jaundiced view.  It did not do well in America and the trailer made me sorry for Matt Damon.  I was not aware until I prepared this review that the movie had been criticized for whitewashing, which is the current liberal pet peeve.  It turns out that is a bit bogus because the template required three whites to work.  It’s not like William was married to Lin.  By the way, one refreshing thing about the plot is there is no romance.  The other criticism, which does hold water, is the white savior trope.  But if William takes the chance to sit the last battle out as he rides into the sunset, the Earth plunges into the Sun.  The movie does not mess with the grand order of things.

My advice is to continually tell yourself that the movie is recreating a legend.    That way the silliness can be blamed on mythology.  (And you should imagine the script was written with input from the screenwriter’s fourteen year old son.)  Keeping that in mind, the movie is better than the similarly plotted “The Thirteenth Warrior”, but not as good as “Kingdom of Heaven”.  The CGI for the monsters is on a par with “Starship Troopers” which means it’s not distracting.  They are pretty scary.  The battles remind of “Starship Troopers” and “Lord of the Rings”.

“The Great Wall” is forgettable, but mildly entertaining.  Matt Damon’s daughter told him it should have been called “The Wall”.  Way to keep dad’s ego in check!


GRADE  =  C  

Monday, December 26, 2022

SEAL TEAM: All Along the Watchtower (2019)


            Besides reviewing war movies, I also review war TV series.  I do this as part of my “First and Ten” project.  This is where I review the first, tenth, and best episodes.  Sometimes I find a series that has a two-parter that can be dealt with as a movie.  I have been able to do this with “Twelve O’Clock High” and “Combat!  As I am working my way through “SEAL Team”, I ran into a two-parter that works for a movie review.

            “SEAL Team” came about when CBS decided it wanted its own military drama based on special forces operators.  It was inspired by the History Channel’s “Six” which was about SEAL Team 6.  That show blended missions with the characters’ home lives.  It was part special forces, part soap opera.  “SEAL Team” is modeled that way, too.  Ironically, “Six” was cancelled after two seasons.  This happened when the History Channel realized the show did not have any aliens, truckers, or pawn brokers.  “SEAL Team” premiered in 2017.  In 2021, it shifted to Paramount+.  The show was supposed to star Jim Caviezel, but he backed out due to creative differences.  David Boreanaz turned it down when it was first offered, but when it was reoffered he signed on. This was his first show after 12 years on “Bones”.  His character, Jason Hayes, is based on Mark Owen (not his real name), a SEAL who participated in the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden.  Former SEALs participate in the show.  Many of the episodes are based on their missions.  Some work as stunt men.   (In 2019, the series was nominated for an Emmy for stunt coordination.)   Others have acted in the show and have helped write episodes.

            The two-parter I am reviewing is entitled “All Along the Watchtower”.  It is loosely based on the Benghazi Incident of 2012 where an American ambassador was killed by militants and a compound was besieged.  If you have seen “13 Hours”, it makes for a good comparison to how TV handled the Benghazi Incident.  The two-parter centers around a protection detail for Ambassador Marsden (Khandi Alexander).  She is trying to broker a peace deal between participants in a civil war in Yemen.  She is ex-military and not your usual politician.  She is determined to bring the leaders of the opposing sides together to discuss peace.  Her protection detail is Ray (Neil Brown, Jr.) and Clay (Max Theriot).  It is supposed to be a lark.  They come under fire and take refuge in a compound that has a wall, but is not ideal for defense.  The rest of Bravo, led by Jason, is sent to rescue them.  They have to fight their way to the compound and it’s Alamo time.  The ambassador has to be talked out of leaving to go talk to a warlord!  She is recklessly brave.  And na├»ve about the situation in Yemen.  She has become a target for a large number of insurgents.

            These two episodes are characteristic of the series.  There are several running threads.  Sonny is moping around since his breakup with Lisa Davis (Toni Trucks).  He is cold toward Ray because he blames him for the breakup.  Clay is belligerent toward the new team member, Vic (Lucca De Oliveira) because he has a bad vibe about him and did not want him joining the team.  Jason is giving the new physiologist (Emily Swallow) a hard time.  She’s been brought in to help them with physical problems due to their dangerous activities.  Jason is the “rub some dirt on it” and get back in the game type.  The episodes do not continue arcs from their home life.  They are focused on the action-packed rescue.

            The two-parter follows one of the shows templates.  An easy mission becomes complicated. Numerous opponents need to be disposed of.  The team is in contact with Commander Blackburn (Judd Lormand) and Lisa Davis.  They coordinate from headquarters.  Satellite views give the viewer a perspective of what the battle site looks like.  Besides Davis, the other recurring female character is C.I.A. agent Mandy Ellis (Jessica Pare).  Usually, Mandy starts the mission with some intelligence, but in these episodes, she is with the Ambassador in the Alamo.

            A typical “SEAL Team” episode has a lot of action when the s--- hits the fan.  This one is above average in ammo-expending.  The team uses a variety of weapons, as do the enemy.  The bad guys use AK-47s, always ineffectively.  The only scary weapons the SEALs run into are RPGs and Dushku machine guns.  The second episode has a neat scene where Clay runs to an abandoned technical with double Dushkus and then slaughters a bunch of insurgents.  America, f--- yeah!  The show is not graphic, so you do not get R-rated war movie bloodshed.  You also don’t get realistic dialogue because the SEALs don’t use 4-letter words.  They don’t use a lot of military jargon or acronyms, so your average viewer can follow.  The dialogue may be tame, but it’s not lame.

  Normally, the mission involves the team going in to get something or someone.  They kill enemy as they come out in the open where they are easily killed.  Seldom do they hide behind something and ambush the Americans.  It is rare that any of the team members gets wounded.  This is not Star Trek.  There are no red shirts.  Even in an Alamo situation, none of the team gets even a scratch.  The same can’t be said for the Ambassador.  This is one aspect of the episodes that is surprising.  Usually, “SEAL Team” episodes are fairly predictable.

It makes sense to compare “SEAL Team” to its sisters “Combat!” and “Tour of Duty”.  It is better at allowing all the main team members to get some meat.  It has home front scenes, including with wives and children.  But there are episodes where the home front is not intercut to.  It has two strong female characters that are essentially part of the team.  There is more dysfunction than in the other two.  It has more action than the other two series because most episodes involve going into danger and killing.  They globe hop a lot.  The war on terrorism allows for that.  The series also has more multi-episode missions than the other two.  All three have a core cast.  ST has a more varied group of personalities and the acting is better

If you have not watched any “SEAL Team” episodes, you could get a taste by watching “All Along the Watchtower”.  It’s exemplifies a typical episode.    The series stakes a claim to the best war TV series ever made. 

GRADE  =  A-       

Thursday, December 22, 2022

SAS: Rogue Heroes (2022)


                I had been waiting for this series and it finally got to me via Goran Hedlund.  The 6-episode series was made for the BBC and was one of the most costly projects in BBC history.  It also premiered on EPIX.  The director was Tom Shankland who is noted for other TV series.  It was filmed in Morocco.  They had a snake wrangler to clear the sets, but even then a sleeping asp was found sleeping under a chair causing a minor panic.  The crew included 50 stunt men.  They made use of Me-109 mockups, like in the “Battle of Britain”.  The series was written by Steven Wright.  He researched using Ben Macintyre’s “Rogue Heroes:  The History of the SAS, Britain’s Secret Special Forces Unit That Sabotaged the Nazis and Changed the Nature of Warfare”.  He also used first-person accounts and interviewed the veteran Mike Sadler (one of the characters).  He provided stories that were not included in Macintyre’s book.  Each episode starts with the disclaimer:  “Based on true story, the events depicted which seem most unbelievable… are mostly true.”  Cheeky, but true.  Knight insists that the more outrageous the incident, the more likely it actually happened. 

                The first episode is set in May, 1941.  It leads with snare drums on the soundtrack.  Before I can finish shaking my head at this trope, here comes an AC/DC song as a convoy crosses from Cairo to Tobruk.  The trucks come to a halt in the middle of the desert because they carried enough gasoline for 500 kilometers instead of 500 miles.  An officer named Stirling is disgusted with this incompetence.  Within the first ten minutes, it is obvious this is not your father’s WWII series

  The main characters are quickly introduced.  David Stirling (Connor Swindell) is a heavy drinker who has been in the Army since he was a teenager.  He has contempt for higher ups and the social standing to get away with it.  Paddy Mayne is a low-born brass-hater who is constantly in trouble.  His alcohol consumption makes him a loose cannon ready to explode.  Jock Lewes (Alfie Allen) is a strict officer, but good leader.  Lt. Col. Dudley Clarke (Dominic West) is first seen in drag, but he is an officer who is a wiz at deceiving the enemy.  Clarke is in league with a sexy French intelligence agent named Eve (Sofia Boutella), but she will be Stirling’s love interest.

                Stirling creates a commando unit that will harass the German/Italian supply line.  He brings on Lewes to train the hand-picked men.  You have to be a renegade to qualify.  Mayne is recruited by Sterling after escaping from a jail cell after he beat up a Major.  The other men are the usual motley group that you see in war movies that involve a suicide mission.  Originally, the idea was the SAS (Special Air Service) would be paratroopers.  Sterling talks Gen. Auchinleck into backing the unit by promising him the SAS will destroy more Axis planes than the Royal Air Force.

                Their first mission is going to be a paradrop, but a sandstorm makes it very risky.  Stirling forces the pilot to take off.  When they land, the wind pulls their parachutes across the desert.  Some of the men are killed when they strike objects.  The men are scattered, some are picked up by the jeeps of the Long Range Desert Group. (For American baby boomers, they would be similar to the Rat Patrol, but were used mainly for scouting and as a sort of taxi service for the SAS).  This introduces Sgt. Mark Sadler (Tom Glynn-Carney).  This fiasco results in 22 out of the 55 men being killed or captured.  One of the dead is Mayne’s best friend.  From now on, they will use jeeps to ingress. The next mission is more successful as the four main leaders attack four air bases using Lewes bombs named after their inventor -  Jock Lewes.  The episode jumps between groups and the places are identified on the screen.  (The series also does this to identify new characters.)  Mayne’s group sets one of the themes by slaughtering unarmed Germans in a barracks where they are socializing.  The theme is there are no gentlemanly rules in their type of warfare.  They start keeping score of how many planes each leader destroys.  This exacerbates the simmering dysfunctionality between Stirling and Mayne.  Not to mention the dispute between Stirling and Clarke as to who created the SAS and how it should be used.  This mission proves the efficacy of vehicular raids and the rest of the series will reenact several, with plenty of gunfire and explosions.  The vicious nature of their tactics are contrasted to their trips to Cairo for rest and recreation.

                In episode 4, the Brits are united with French paratroopers.  Stirling assigns Maynes, of all people, to train them.  Meanwhile Stirling infiltrates Benghazi with Randolph Churchill in tow.  Later, Stirling meets Randolph’s father.  He breaks the ice by telling Winston that he has a rash on his c---.  Unfazed, Winnie asks him to use the SAS to help get a crucial convoy to Malta through.  “Let slip the dogs of war” is Winston’s advice.   That would make a good motto for the unit.  This sets up the big final mission.  Not everyone will survive, but the Germans and Italians will suffer.  Don’t get too attached to any of the characters

                That AC/DC song sets the tone early.  The series is accompanied by 1980’s rock, including punk rock.  That is not the only genre.  In one sequence, the episode moved from a march to rock to swing to belly dance music.  Before you yell “anachronism!”, the idea behind the odd choice of music is the series is about a unit that does not play by the rules, so the series shouldn’t either.  Personally, I loved the music.  It does fit a series that is not your traditional WWII show.  The length of the series allows for the development of some fascinating individuals and they are all real people, except for Eve.  As you can read below, there were liberties taken with Stirling, Mayne, Lewes, and Clarke, but this was within acceptable artistic license.  The raids are well within acceptable history.  The series does not depict the missions in a hagiographic manner.  Mistakes are made and lives are lost.  The show has a big budget for blanks and those blanks are fired from vintage weapons.  The explosion budget was also high.  For men, this series has it all, including some cheesecake from Ms. Boutella.  Cover your kids’ eyes when she is in a bed, but you won’t need to for the action scenes as the series is not graphic.

                The cast is outstanding and they are all-in.  I don’t know what the experience was like filming in Morocco, but it probably helped them get into character.  The Stirling/Mayne dynamic is at the core and Swindell and O’Connell are outstanding.  There is a nice cameo by Jason Watkins as Churchill.  The actors get good dialogue to work with. The cinematography makes it an interesting watch. In a nice touch, archival footage is blended into the action.  Everything points to a prestige project. 

                The series ends with several questions unanswered.  They are already planning a second series to deal with the unit’s actions in Europe.  Let’s hope the high quality continues.  And it keeps its Quentin Tarantino vibe.

GRADE  =  A-

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  David Stirling was the son of a general.  He left college to go to Paris to become an artist.  He was a mountaineer who was in training to climb Mt. Everest when the war began.  He joined the commandos. When Force Z (later called Layforce) was disbanded because of heavy casualties on Crete he was out a job.  He snuck in to see Gen. Auchinleck and got him to approve the idea that became SAS.

                Paddy Mayne was not lowborn.  He came from a landed family.  He became an outstanding rugby player, boxer, and golfer.  He was in the artillery before joining the infantry.  He became a commando and first saw action in Lebanon fighting the Vichy French.  He did attack a superior officer who he had a feud with.  The beating he doled out was provoked by the killing of his dog (not a chess game).  He was not imprisoned for it, but he was dismissed from Commando 11.  He did join the SAS with best friend Eoin McGonical.  During the period covered by the series, he was credited with the destruction of 100 aircraft.  He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his actions in their first successful attack.  It was Italians he massacred, not Germans.

                Jock Lewes was born in India and grew up in Australia.  He attended Oxford.  While working in Berlin for the British Council, he flirted with admiration for Hitler and Nazism.  It’s temporary.  He enlisted before WWII began.  He was an infantry officer before Stirling recruited him for the SAS.  He was in charge of training, but he also led raids.  He did invent the bomb named after him.  It was a combination of plastic explosives, diesel and thermite.  Spoiler:  he did die when his jeep was attacked by a plane.  He was hit by shrapnel in the leg and then killed by a bullet.

                Dudley Clarke was born in South Africa, but grew up in Britain.  For WWII, he joined the royal artillery and transferred to the Royal Flying Corps.  He spent the war in flight training.  In the interwar years, he returned to the artillery and then joined intelligence where he found his niche.  In Cairo in 1940, he was assigned the job of coordinating strategic deception.  He went on to become “the greatest British deceiver of WW2.”  One of his talents was creating orders of battle that would fall into enemy hands and convince them that the British had phantom units and/or placing actual units away from where they were.  The SAS was originally one of those fake units.  He also organized small commando raids into France.  Clarke did have wild personal life.  The series introduces him with an homage to his notorious arrest in pre-war Madrid dressed as a woman.

                As far as the missions, the series gets them mostly accurate.  On their first mission (Operation Squatter), they did foolishly jump in a sand storm with disastrous results. 22 of 55 were killed or captured.  They did set up base at Qaret Tartura on the edge of the Qattar Depression.  They did steal from a New Zealand unit to get set up.  They were equipment and vehicle poor until they got successful.  The first jeep (modified American jeeps) attack was basically as shown.  They hit three airfields in Libya and destroyed 60 aircraft.  Mayne’s group did slaughter unarmed Italians (Germans in the show).  Lewes was killed in the manner shown in the episode. 

                 Stirling did take Randolph Churchill on a raid into Benghazi.  It was not as successful as the series implies.  The episode does not show Randolph severely dislocating his back when the truck he was riding in overturned.  The series is accurate in depicting that the support of Winston Churchill got the unit all the weapons, vehicles, and manpower needed.  This manpower included a unit of French paratroopers led by Georges Berge.  He was captured in the raid on Crete

                Their biggest success is covered in episode 6.  On July 26-27, 1942, 18 jeeps raided five airfields along with the raid on Crete. Stirling did ride down the airfield at Benina strafing the aircraft.  Stirling was captured when his jeep was ambushed in Jan., 1943.  By then, Rommel was referring to the thorn in his side as “The Phantom Major”.  I think it’s safe to assume he won’t be playing a major role in the next season.  But since Mayne gets promoted to command the SAS, there’s bound to be plenty to entertain viewers.