Needing to shoot a key sequence in the 1992 thriller Patriot Games, director Phillip Noyce and his team faced a problem. The scene takes place in central London, yet features a terrorist assassination attempt, plenty of gunfire and an exploding taxi. They would need several days to film this complex action, and closing down an area of the city for that long was a tall order.
The solution came when the production team did a deal to use a site in Greenwich in south-east London, which not only features some stunning 17th-century architecture but at the time was owned by the Royal Navy. The Old Royal Naval College, as it’s now known, was originally the Royal Hospital for Seamen and was built between 1696 and 1713 by the great architect Sir Christopher Wren. After the hospital (in this context the word means a convalescence home for injured and retired sailors rather than an emergency facility) closed in 1869, the Royal Navy took over and used the buildings as a training college until moving out in 1998. The site is now partly a university campus, partly a free-to-enter tourist attraction.
Close to a hundred films and dozens of TV shows have used the Old Royal Naval College as a filming location, as detailed in the site’s visitor centre. Filmmakers have been attracted by the architectural beauty and the riverside views, as well as the ability to completely control the environment and close it to through traffic.
From 1958’s romantic comedy Indiscreet, through Octopussy, The Madness of King George, Four Weddings and Funeral, The Golden Compass, The Dark Knight Rises, Skyfall, Les Miserables, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Thor: The Dark World and many, many more, right up to recent streaming hits like Cruella and Enola Holmes, the buildings and layout of the ORNC are recognisable again and again.
Patriot Games wasn’t the first to film here, but it used the location excellently as a stand-in for central London. So to celebrate that movie’s 30th anniversary, I set off to photograph the locations as they appear today…
The sequence shot here involves a group of rogue IRA terrorists, including Sean Bean’s Sean Miller, who ambush a member of the Royal Family. Their aim is to assassinate Lord Holmes (James Fox), so force his chauffeur-driven car to pull over and then plant a bomb underneath. The attempt is foiled, however, because of a passerby – the American espionage analyst Jack Ryan (Harrison Ford), who just happens to be on the scene. He uses his former US Marines training to intervene and kill one of the terrorists…
The superb sequence can be viewed here:
Before the terrorists strike, the scene is set. Jack is in London because he has just delivered a lecture at a Royal Navy headquarters building (making it apt the filmmakers used what was then a naval college), and is on his way to meet his wife, Kathy (Anne Archer), and their young daughter, Sally (Thora Birch). We see Kathy and Sally killing time before Jack arrives and Sally is fascinated by a uniformed guard at what is meant to be the entrance to an unspecified royal residence. In fact, the scene was shot the ORNC’s East Gate.
We also see the pair walking towards their rendezvous with Jack, which was filmed over on the other side of the complex to the west of the King William Court block.
Mother and daughter also stroll past the eastern edge of Queen Mary’s Court, which – thanks to the magic of movie editing – is a completely illogical route.
Jack, meanwhile, arrives at the meeting spot, which is atop some wide steps in the centre of the complex – steps which, sit between the ORNC’s chapel with its world-famous Painted Hall. These steps can be seen in a whole host of Hollywood and British films, usually redressed as period London – see Robert Downey Jr’s take on Sherlock Holmes, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Cruella and so many more instances that this blog would be twice the length if we listed them all.
The distinctive colonnades visible behind Jack crop up in many movies too: in The Dark Knight Rises, for example, Bruce Wayne eats at a cafe supposedly in Florence, while Keira Knightley and Eddie Redmayne filmed scenes here for, respectively, The Duchess and The Aeronauts.
These colonnades are part of King William Court, which houses the aforementioned Painted Hall – very possibly the UK’s most beautiful room. Once planned as a refectory, the vast hall was given an elaborately painted ceiling by Sir James Thornhill – so elaborate, in fact, that when finished the room was deemed too grand for the hospital’s residents. It’s since been used for state dinners, as an art gallery and, since the 1950s, as a filming location. Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman danced here in Indiscreet, Johnny Depp was dragged through the space (standing in for a Buckingham Palace corridor) in a Pirates of the Caribbean sequel, and Olivia Colman gave us her Queen Elizabeth in TV show The Crown.
Patriot Games, however, didn’t venture inside. The production team had an explosion to film…
Lord Holmes’ car is ambushed in the central open area of the Old Royal Naval College, with those iconic steps just off to the left in these images and the river to the right. In fact, if we turn right to look out across the Thames, you see in the distance the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf – a markedly different view from when Patriot Games filmed here. In the early 1990s, just one solitary tall building – One Canada Square – was visible on the horizon.
When it comes in the film, the explosion of the Holmeses’ limo is a spectacular set piece, and the decision to mount it in Greenwich was a masterstroke from director Phillip Noyce and his colleagues. The Naval College site, with its stunning and authentic architecture, sells the idea that this is busy, bustling central London – which makes the idea of an IRA attack more daring, more edgy, more dangerous. Patriot Games is a glossy, classy action thriller, and its location work – not just here, but also in Maryland and California – adds a huge amount of both production value and verisimilitude. (Just imagine if they’d cut corners and filmed on a dreary backlot set in Hollywood, the kind of fake street-grid of bland buildings you see in things like NCIS and studio sitcoms.)
I first visited the Old Royal Naval College in around 2010, specifically to see the filming locations from Patriot Games (a film I’ve always been very fond of). I’ve lived within walking distance for 20 years and now return virtually weekly for one reason or another. So, in order to research this blog post, I went very early one Sunday in summer; the ground had only just opened and there was no one around. The sun was already bright and warm, and everything was peaceful and serene as I walked around and took my photographs and imagined how Noyce and co used this space for their blockbuster. There was no sign of Harrison Ford or Sean Bean or terrorists ambushing a dignitary and attempting an assassination. All was calm.
An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…
These reviews reveal plot twists.
Setting: This BBC Radio production, produced by BBC Northern Ireland and aired on Radio 4 in late 2003, is a heavily abridged reading of the book. We therefore hit the major locations from Stoker’s original: near the Borgo Pass in Transylvania; Whitby on the North Yorkshire coast of England; Purfleet in Essex; and various parts of London. As in the novel, the events take place from 3 May until 6 November in an unspecified year (probably 1893).
Faithful to the novel? Yes, the script is Stoker’s text, although a *huge* amount of material has been excised by writer Daragh Carville in order to fit the format – 10 episodes, roughly 13 minutes each. (By comparison, an unabridged reading of Dracula I reviewed in 2020 ran for 15 and a half hours.) While Stoker was undoubtedly a writer who banged on a bit – Dracula contains many passages that test the patience, especially when Van Helsing is giving neverending speeches – listeners familiar with the 1897 novel will find some cuts jarring. Vastly reducing the role of eccentric Whitby local Mr Swales, an old duffer who spooks Mina and Lucy with macabre stories about suicide, doesn’t hurt the storytelling. Barely mentioning Lucy’s American suitor, Quincey P Morris, who is often dropped from film and TV adaptations, is also a wise choice. But Lucy herself – Dracula’s first victim – is a shadowy presence until she becomes a vampire. She doesn’t even get to speak in her own voice: all 5,000 words of her letters and diaries have been removed.
Best performance: There are just four performers, each reading their characters’ diary entries, letters and telegrams. (Stoker’s full text features 16 narrators, though most are minor characters who are easily removed.) Michael Fassbender plays Jonathan Harker, who travels to Castle Dracula in the opening episodes, encounters the vampire Count Dracula and kickstarts the plot. Later the star of numerous Hollywood movies, including multiple entries in the X-Men series, Fassbender conveys Harker’s plight well. Elsewhere, Gillian Kearney (Brookside, Emmerdale) reads the material from Mina’s point of view; James D’Arcy (Agent Carter, Broadchurch) is Dr Seward; and James Greene (who later appeared in a 2006 TV version of Dracula) is Van Helsing.
Review: Some clever editing disguises how much original material has been jettisoned, and Bram Stoker’s story rattles along enjoyably enough and without losing too much substance. None of the actors generates much energy, however, while music and sound effects are sparse.
Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.
Amazonian warrior Diana Prince is living undercover as a museum administrator in Washington, DC, but must defeat a businessman who has taken possession of an artefact that grants wishes…
After her modern-day debut and her First World War origin story, this film finds Diana Prince – aka the never-ageing superhero Wonder Woman – in the 1980s. Younger readers may find this hard to believe, but the 1980s used to be unfashionable. Once we all moved on to the postmodern, self-reflective 90s, the ‘greed decade’ became a punchline of clashing colours, soulless pop music and commercial artifice. When the sitcom Friends showed us some flashbacks to its characters in the 80s, everything was mocked – look at Chandler’s dorky haircut, listen to the irritating theme tune from Beverly Hills Cop, see how naive they all were.
Then time passed and, crucially, people who had been young and happy in the 1980s started to write, produce and direct TV shows and movies. The 80s-set TV drama Stranger Things, with its overt echoing of films like E.T. the Extra-Terrestial and The Goonies, has been hugely successful in making the decade cool again. But similar work had been done earlier by JJ Abrams’s film Super 8, the US spy drama The Americans, the British cop show Ashes to Ashes and many other fictions that affectionately traded on the 1980s’ idiosyncrasies and charms.
So setting this latest Wonder Woman film in 1984 (after a largely pointless prologue featuring a 10-year-old Diana cheating at a game of Total Wipeout) seemed a decent idea. As well as developing the character’s backstory and showing us her life before she hooked up with Superman and the rest the Justice League, the movie could have some nostalgic fun with the outdated styles and politics of a previous era…
Now fully assimilated to life in America, and hiding the fact she never grows any older, Diana (Gal Gadot) has a high-level job at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC. But she’s privately sad and lonely because she’s still mourning her love interest from an earlier movie, First World War fighter pilot Steve Trevor. As the story kicks off, Diana meets a new colleague, Barbara (Kristen Wiig), who is initially presented as a glasses-wearing klutz who can’t walk in high heels. And on Barbara’s first day, an ancient artefact is donated to the museum. It’s actually a mystical wish-giver, capable of making any desire come true, and before you can say ‘plot development’ both Barbara and Diana have unknowingly wished for things…
Barbara wants to become like her new pal Diana – ie, a strong, confident, sexy woman with 20/20 vision – so soon casts aside her glasses, gets a nicer hairdo and starts walking in heels no problem. (That’s right, folks: this film flat-out equates a woman’s worth with her appearance.) This transformation… somehow… eventually leads Barbara to becoming a maniacal super-villain with a chip on her shoulder who looks like a humanoid cheetah. (Don’t ask. The scriptwriters didn’t.)
Meanwhile, Diana herself wishes that her dead love, Steve, would return to life… so return he does! But for baffling reasons he does this by taking over the body of a randomly selected nearby man of a similar age and build. Why the MacGuffin gives Diana her desire in this way, rather than Steve just magically appearing, or his 70-year-old corpse being reanimated, is just one of many questions the film sidesteps. In order for star Chris Pine to play the role, we viewers (and Diana) see the man as if he were Steve. When he looks in a mirror, however, he sees the poor guy whose life has been put on hold against his will. Rather shockingly in this day and age, neither Diana nor Steve (nor the film) has any moral issues with using a stranger’s body for a few days, even for sex at one point.
Anyway, the pair reacquaint themselves with each other, and Steve gets to know the 1980s. At one point, in a fun gender-reversal of the cliche, there’s a montage scene where he tries on a variety of garish clothes – Miami Vice jacket, tracksuit, scarf – with Diana disapproving of the bad choices. Diana also shows him the subway (ooo!) and a space shuttle at the museum (wow!). But all this lovey-dovey stuff can’t last forever, as Diana and Steve have a villain to stop.
The Smithsonian’s new benefactor, oil baron Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), is in reality a conman who’s been running a Ponzi scheme to raise funds. (Lord’s a fraud!) He wants the wish-granting device for himself, and when he tricks Barbara into giving him access, he wishes for the same abilities as the device itself. So from this point on, he’s able to make other people’s desires comes true – and of course he uses this to trick people into wishing for things that are advantageous for him. Cue superhero-movie action scenes and chases and cursory detective work for the lead characters…
An early sequence in Wonder Woman 1984 is set in the kind of chintzy shopping mall seen in 80s comedies such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Weird Science (and which was recently homaged in a season of Stranger Things). As a pair of hapless crooks attempt to rob a jewellers, and Wonder Woman swoops in to save the day, the filmmaking aims for the zippy elan of the Christopher Reeve Superman films, which had also been a clear touchstone for Wonder Woman’s 2017 origin story. Action mixes with light comedy, all seasoned with a sense of optimism and style. However, the longer the film goes on, and the less sense *any* of the storytelling makes, this optimism curdles into boredom.
We’re used to superhero films with action scenes that look cartoony fake, and WW84 has a wodge of greenscreen howlers. Maybe it’s not a big deal for Diana Prince to have no real character arc – other than sad-happy-sad again – because this is her fourth movie and it’s a prequel. But less forgivable is a script stocked full of clunky beats, head-stratchingly bizarre plot developments, contradictory rules, underwritten characters, laughable coincidences and the breathless oh-and-then-this-ness that suggests multiple filmmaking voices chipped in with ideas that couldn’t be vetoed. The ending is then so badly thought-out it beggars belief. In order to end a global crisis of Maxwell Lord’s making, every human being on the planet has to recant a wish they’ve just made – including presumably those who wished to be cured of cancer or for their starving family to be fed. Surely even bombastic, CG-heavy superhero films need *some* plausibility?!
Of the main cast, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig and Pedro Pascal do the best they can; they’re good actors, able to add some charm and depth to their characters. But Gal Gadot continues to be awful. A lead actor needs more than the three gears (aloof, mildly amused and sad) she manages to find in this story. WW84 features a topical theme about unwanted male attention, with several morons coming on to Diana or Barbara and reacting badly when they’re spurned. But Gadot can make nothing of this, show us none of Diana’s emotional reaction, and leaves the subplot as just an obvious piece of pointing out the obvious. Elsewhere, Pine is left to do almost all the heavy lifting in the central romance.
But for all these failings and frustrations, perhaps the biggest letdown of Wonder Woman 1984 is how little it uses its time period. Frankly, the film could be set in any era of the last century or so; there’s nothing intrinsic in the story or the characters that speaks to, or about, the 1980s. True, we get a kaleidoscopic conveyor belt of flashy cars, keep-fit fanatics, shopping malls, colour-clashing fashions and questionable haircuts. And yet all these things feel like cursory set dressing; they lack the authenticity of Stranger Things and the like, which delve beneath the surface to say something about how society evolves. Characters here may have rolled-up sleeves and TV sets might be square, but none of the film’s politics, attitudes or spirit has anything to do with the 1980s specifically. Diana herself never looks or acts or speaks like anything other than a 21st-century woman, despite actually being an immortal goddess from Amazonia. A thoroughly out-dated mess of a movie.
Film director Tony Scott, who died on 19 August 2012, loved pace and momentum and movement. His 16 feature films are not quiet or sober, slow or mediative – they’re in-your-face and unashamedly hyperactive and veer away from anything that might be boring. These movies celebrate cinema as pure, uncomplicated entertainment, rather than having a political or subtextual purpose. Scott was also a believer in ‘freshness’ rather than originality. He once said that originality is a myth – everything’s already been done – so instead he emphasised carefree pleasures such as action and comedy and energy and movie stars.
Born and raised in the north-east of England, his first toe was dipped into the filmmaking waters in 1962, when he was 18. His older brother, Ridley, was making a semi-autobiographical short called Boy and Bicycle, and hired Tony as both the lead actor and a general behind-the-scenes gofer. ‘It was two brothers together all day for six weeks, and you could see it sinking in,’ Ridley said later. ‘It was an education for Tony. Suddenly, he had a direction in life.’ A few years later, Tony followed his brother into the world of commercials: both men directed thousands of TV ads, built up good reputations and made a lot of money.
Ridley then shifted into making movies such as Alien and Blade Runner. Tony soon bagged a Hollywood career too, which kicked off in the 1980s. He found his groove directing gleeful, showy films that were often huge box-office hits… even if they disappointed sniffy critics. His canon is typified by crafted visuals – Scott loved his backlighting, long lenses, smoky interiors and sunsets – which create a massive impact on a cinema screen. But there is always heart underneath the razzmatazz. As much as he focussed on ‘surface’, Scott prided himself on his research into any given story or situation. He often found real-life equivalents of his major characters – ‘role models’, he called them – so he and his actors could ask them about small details and add layers of verisimilitude.
Scott took detours into the horror and sci-fi genres, but the backbone of his career was thrillers. And he returned to some subject matters more than once: the US navy (Top Gun, Revenge, Crimson Tide), sports (Days of Thunder, The Last Boy Scout, The Fan), the CIA (Enemy of the State, Spy Game), trains (The Taking of Pelham 123, Unstoppable), surveillance technology (Enemy of the State, Déjà Vu)…
The director also hired several stars multiple times – most notably his muse Denzel Washington, but also Val Kilmer, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Gene Hackman, Christopher Walken and others. As that list demonstrates, his films were undoubtedly male-dominated, with only two (The Hunger and Domino) having women as lead characters. But in the plus column the director worked with POC actors with a frequency that shamed many of his peers: he gave starring roles to Washington, Eddie Murphy, Will Smith, Halle Berry, Damon Wayans, Paula Patton, Wesley Snipes, Rosario Dawson…
To celebrate the incredible CV of Tony Scott – a populist, a showman, someone who’s long been one of my favourite filmmakers – I set myself the challenge of rewatching his 16 feature films, and coming up with a personal ranking…
16. Days of Thunder (1990)
Tony Scott made four films for the Hollywood producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson between 1986 and 1995; he did as much as anyone to define their signature mode of flashy popcorn movie. But this third effort, a motor-racing story starring Tom Cruise, was a troubled endeavour from lights out to chequered flag. Director and producers argued incessantly on set, causing huge delays to filming; writer Robert Towne was forced into hasty script changes; and the editing process was rushed to meet a release date. All this messiness is very evident in the finished film, which is the only truly bad movie of Tony Scott’s career. Cruise stars as an up-and-coming driver who blags a seat on the top-level NASCAR circuit. Robert Duvall is his grouchy team boss, while Nicole Kidman, Cruise’s then-girlfriend, plays a cursory love interest. Some of the races are shot excitingly enough, and the grease-and-garage world of the sport is captured well, but the soap-opera storyline never grabs your attention.
15. Revenge (1990)
For its first hour, this is a low-energy, bland drama about retired pilot Jay Cochran who moves to Mexico to hang out with his wealthy friend Tibey Mendez. Jay falls in love with Mendez’s young wife, Miryea, and they begin an affair – but this is an unwise move, given that Mendez is a powerful crime kingpin. Then, halfway through, there’s a scene of brutal violence. This takes the story into unsettlingly dark areas, and the film becomes terser and tougher, more like a cheap exploitation flick… Anthony Quinn is appropriately menacing as Mendez, while Madeleine Stowe, who coincidentally later starred in an unrelated TV show called Revenge, is decent too as Miryea. But Kevin Costner – who stars as Jay, was one of the producers and even considered directing the movie himself – is miscast. With his carefree, Hollywood swagger, we never quite understand why this Top Gun-style fighter pilot hooks up with a man who’s clearly a dangerous criminal. Tony Scott would retell a similar story 14 years later with Man on Fire, which coincidentally is also set in Mexico, and sell the emotional undercurrents much more strongly than here.
14. Domino (2005)
In 2004, Scott was hired to make a short film for Amazon.com. Agent Orange was about two lost souls connecting at a train station, and it gave the director the freedom to experiment with form. So he shot his footage with hand-cranked cameras, which produced jerky, unpredictable images of varied frame rates, and he added double exposures to create a trippy, dreamy effect. These techniques… and *so much more*… then fed into 2005 feature Domino, a based-on-real-life tale of an Englishwoman working as a bounty hunter in modern-day LA. The whole film is a panic attack of cinematic excess; a pill-popping fever dream of manipulated footage, hyperactive editing, jump cuts, crazy camerawork, montages, a sickly green colour palette, on-screen captions, needle-drops, flashbacks, cross-cutting, brutal violence and even a Jerry Springer cameo. Keira Knightley plays Domino Harvey with tomboy coolness as she escapes her boring rich-girl life to chase after criminals for a living, while Lucy Liu, Christopher Walken, Delroy Lindo, Mena Suvari and Mickey Rourke have supporting roles. In truth, the aggressive directing style swamps a needlessly complicated storyline, the characters are little more than mannequins being moved around the shop window, and on a first viewing the film will simply be too irritating for most people. But you’ve got to admire the balls in using Hollywood money to make something so fucking *weird*.
13. Beverly Hills Cop II (1987)
The original Beverly Hills Cop, directed by Martin Brest and released in 1984, was such a monster hit that a sequel was inevitable – so producers Simpson and Bruckheimer turned to Tony Scott, who’d just made them a fortune with Top Gun. Like the first film, this follow-up is ostensibly a crime thriller. A storyline about a gang pulling off elaborate heists is played out with R-rated violence and colourful language in a familiar format. However, all this is window dressing. Really the film is a delivery system for the comic energy of star Eddie Murphy, who reprises his role as Detroit detective Axel Foley. It’s easy to forget now, after 30 years of kids films and flops, but Murphy was a huge box-office draw in the 1980s, hitting big with 48 Hrs, Trading Places and Coming to America. And he is this movie’s star attraction. The crime story never convinces, the emotion is hackneyed and the new characters are all very dull. (Brigitte Nielsen’s Karla Fry, a statuesque baddie who shoots a police chief and wears a succession of sci-fi sunglasses, is at least memorable. But it’s a dreadful performance.) The fun instead comes from Murphy’s episodic improvs – Foley blagging his way into a country club by pretending to carry nuclear weapons; Foley tricking some builders into letting him live in a mansion; Foley taking his cop friends from the first film, Judge Reinhold’s Detective Billy Rosewood and John Ashton’s Sergeant John Taggart, to a nightclub and telling everyone that the latter is really President Gerald Ford. All in all, it’s nonsense. But an amiable, inoffensive 90 minutes of nonsense.
12. The Fan (1996)
Gil Renard (Robert De Niro) is a down-on-his-luck salesman whose biggest passion in life is baseball – specifically the San Francisco Giants, who have just signed a new star player called Bobby Rayburn. But when Rayburn’s season fails to ignite, Gil believes he can step in to help the batter… A splashy, flashy, energetic film, The Fan more or less passed people by in 1996. The box office was poor, as were reviews. But viewed now, a quarter of a century later, it works well as both a whip-fast thriller and a commentary on insidious male obsession. At first Gil seems like an everyman who takes baseball a bit too seriously, the way many men treat sport, but increasingly we come to realise that he’s a man-child living in a delusion. As he focuses his stalker-like gaze on Rayburn (an impressive Wesley Snipes), who is simultaneously going through his own personal issues, Gil neglects his son and his job and takes drastic actions… A character teetering on the edge of intense behaviour is, of course, prime Robert De Niro territory and we sense something of Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle and Cape Fear’s Max Cady in this character. The script – based on a 1995 novel and written by former Cheers staffer Phoef Sutton – does a good job of balancing the dark subject matter with moments of dry humour, but Tony Scott’s pyrotechnical camerawork maybe gets in the way of any genuine understanding of Gil’s psychology. The final sequence also tips over into outlandish.
11. The Hunger (1983)
Scott’s first feature film was this art-house horror with few characters and little action – very atypical when compared to the rest of his filmography. In 1980s New York, a 3,000-year-old vampire played by Catherine Deneuve (‘untouchable and surreal’ said Scott of her performance; Charlotte Rampling turned the role down) fears being lonely after her long-time consort (David Bowie) begins to rapidly age, so she ensnares a new lover (Susan Sarandon, who later joked that the lesbian subplot changed her fanbase somewhat). The Hunger is certainly a beautiful piece of work, often looking like a high-end rock video. There’s an ethereal quality, stately music, dark sexuality, monochromatic visuals, lots of billowing curtains and even an appearance by Goth band Bauhaus, but the story lacks an emotional punch. Scott was influenced by Stanley Kubrick, especially his candle-lit period film Barry Lyndon, and The Hunger has some of that same icy detachment. There are also echoes of Blade Runner, recently made by Tony’s brother Ridley, especially in the use of film-noir Venetian blinds, Art Deco locations and smoky rooms. Slow, languid and overtly stylish, The Hunger’s hypnotic, esoteric power builds with repeated viewings.
10. Spy Game (2001)
We’re in 1991. Rogue CIA operative Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) is captured while attempting to lift a prisoner from a Chinese jail. Back in Washington, his former mentor, Nathan Muir (Robert Redford), is about to retire when he’s called into a meeting. Should the CIA help their man, who will be executed the following day? Or should they appease the Chinese and let him die? As the bigwigs discuss the dilemma, Muir explains how he met, recruited and trained Bishop, so there are lengthy flashbacks set in war-torn Vietnam, Cold War Berlin and bomb-shelled Beirut – each one shot with a different colour palette. All this results in a bizarre concept for an action thriller: a race-against-time story where most of the characters spend *hours* sitting around talking. But for those paying attention, the script seeds plenty of information that will be important during the third-act rescue plan – sometimes smartly, sometimes not – and the movie zips along with real drive. Tony Scott took over this project after another director was deemed too inexperienced, so his lead actors were on board before he was – and initially Robert Redford was unsure of Scott’s kinetic shooting style. Redford is typically watchable, though, while the cat-and-mouse intrigue keeps the attention and the ending socks home emotionally.
9. Top Gun (1986)
In the four years since the financial failure of The Hunger, Scott had gone back to making adverts – and more or less given up on the idea of being a features director. However, an ad campaign he shot with a Saab car racing a jet fighter caught the attentions of Bruckheimer and Simpson when they were prepping an aviation action film… Scott initially wanted to make a darker, murkier movie. He described his first pitch to the producers as ‘Apocalypse Now on an aircraft carrier’. But when pushed towards a more commercial tone he decided to treat the script’s hotshot Navy pilots as if they were rock’n’roll stars. The resulting film is a none-more-80s roller-coaster ride – dazzling charisma from lead actor Tom Cruise, era-defining music, outrageous flying stunts, sun-kissed cinematography, alpha-male posturing, a volleyball scene filmed like it’s from a soft-porn flick, big hair, sunglasses, bomber jackets, motorbikes, sweaty faces and endearingly corny dialogue. It ain’t subtle, and viewers wanting decent female characters will be very disappointed, but it’s huge escapist fun. Scott later spent many years trying to get a sequel off the runway, but the project hadn’t become airborne by the time he died. When the superb Top Gun: Maverick came along a whopping 36 years after its predecessor, Scott was acknowledged with a dedication title card.
8. The Last Boy Scout
There were notorious arguments on set during the production of this attitude-driven neo-noir – director Tony Scott, producer Joel Silver and the two lead actors all squared off in macho power games. Unlike the troubles behind the scenes of Days of Thunder, however, this acrimony was well hidden. The resulting film sings with panache and feels like it was made by a team in complete simpatico. Updating a Maltese Falcon-style story for the brash 1990s, The Last Boy Scout stars Bruce Willis, who is perfect casting as a grizzled gumshoe. The actor takes his wisecracking persona from Moonlighting and Die Hard but significantly turns down the joy – PI Joe Hallenbeck is a dishevelled man with a languid cigarette in his mouth, who sleeps in his car and has a marriage in the toilet, but is also perceptive and smart and tough. After rumbling his wife having an affair, he’s given a case that seems straightforward. A waitress/dancer (Halle Berry) needs protection after being threatened. But when she’s killed on his watch, Hallenbeck starts to uncover a conspiracy in the world of professional sports. American football’s top league – due to rights issues the term NFL is never used – is on the decline, with falling attendances and poor TV ratings, and a betting syndicate is blackmailing players to fix matches. Aiding Hallenbeck in his investigation is Corey’s boyfriend, Jimmy Dix (Damon Wayans), who was a star quarterback but has been suspended on gambling charges. The pair make for a classic odd-couple double act – they hate each other (as the actors did, it seems) but work well as a team and eventually form a friendship. Like all classic noirs, this plot is both seedy and intricate, and keeps opening up new avenues of interest. But there’s also the kind of wildness that the best films written by Shane Black always have: caustic humour, plot twists, reversals of fortune, lots of exploding cars, and subversive shocks such as a sports star who murders an opponent during a televised game. (Black would go full throttle with spoofing genre conventions two years later with Last Action Hero.) The project was a perfect fit for Tony Scott, who was able to let loose with his visual flamboyance while always retaining an awareness of the film’s inherent silliness.
7. Crimson Tide (1995)
Another film based on the US Navy and produced by Simpson and Bruckheimer, Crimson Tide is a very different beast from the extrovert, immature Top Gun. Whereas that had been big and silly and flamboyant, this is a taut, machine-tooled thriller – slick, sharp and focused. When his first officer is taken sick, nuclear-submarine captain Frank Ramsey (Gene Hackman) hires a replacement in the form of the cool, calm Lieutenant Commander Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington in his first film for Tony Scott). With a despotic Russian leader threatening world peace (just imagine…), Ramsey’s ballistic missile submarine, the USS Alabama, is sent into the Pacific. However, confusion reigns when two messages are sent from fleet HQ – Ramsey thinks the orders say to launch a nuclear strike against Russia, but Hunter has his doubts and wants to double-check… The foundation of the whole film is this clash between captain and second-in-command. At first a relationship of guarded civility and rote-respect, the two men begin to disagree and butt heads even before the fever-pitch argument about the orders – and seeing heavyweight film actors Hackman and Washington slug it out verbally is an absolute joy. These masters know how to make every moment feel alive and important and full of telling details. Quentin Tarantino did some uncredited work on the dialogue and his contribution is usually assumed to be the addition of some pop-culture references (previous submarine movies, comic books), but perhaps he helped punch up the central relationship too. And the stage for the theatrics is excellently set by Tony Scott and his team: the Alabama is all claustrophobic corridors, smoky stairwells and sweaty faces lit with coloured spotlights like they’re in a Dario Argento horror film. Those faces are played by actors who know how to make secondary characters vivid and memorable – Viggo Mortensen, James Gandolfini, Rocky Carroll, George Dzundza and others – while the anamorphic cinematography is terrific, enhancing drama and danger all the time. Fantastic entertainment. (A side note: as some of the images in this blog post suggest, Tony Scott had a fondness for baseball caps. He took to wearing them himself once baldness struck in early middle age, and a notable number of his actors use them too: see Hackman and Washington in Crimson Tide, Robert Duvall in Days of Thunder, Brad Pitt in Spy Game, Kelly McGillis in Top Gun, multiple characters in baseball drama The Fan…)
6. Déjà Vu (2006)
Tony Scott’s only science-fiction flick is set in a post-9/11, post-Katrina New Orleans, and sees Denzel Washington play ATF agent Doug Carlin. Soon after a bomb rips through a ferry, killing hundreds, Doug is introduced to a radical new technology by Val Kilmer’s FBI boss. This machine allows them to look into the past – but only on a strict four-day time delay – and watch anyone in the city. Can Doug solve the crime before it happens, and possibly even save a key victim called Claire (Paula Patton)? We’re in the kind of surveillance genre Scott had used in Enemy of the State (see below), but the process now also becomes a twisted satire of filmmaking as Doug orders up different angles and close-ups and assembles his bad guy’s narrative. This is a wildly inventive time-travel idea and opens up plenty of fascinating questions for both us and Doug. Repeated viewings of the film reveal subtle details which suggest a circular storyline has been playing out countless times, with cause and effect churned up in a blender, but we still invest in *our* version of Doug and his chances of stopping the explosion. ‘You can be wrong a million times, you only have to be right once,’ he says. This intricately plotted movie was written by Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio, who had issues with some of the changes Scott made. One amendment was a new car-chase sequence with Doug driving in the present… and the bad guy driving in the past. (Doug has goggles that allows him to see, in real time, what was on the road 100 hours previously.) Scott argued, a bit dubiously, that he was moving the film’s concepts from science fiction to science fact – but either way the scene is a brilliantly bonkers piece of cinema. Elsewhere, alongside all the Star Trek tech, the film has a downbeat mood. Doug isn’t a dour man – that devilish Denzel charisma is often dialled up – but he’s still a film-noir loner detective, and he also takes part in one of the oddest romances in cinema. Doug first meets victim Claire after the explosion – when she’s dead on the coroner’s slab. He holds her hand, looks into her blank eyes and comments on how she was beautiful. He then becomes fascinated with her as he spies on her in the past (even watching her shower at one point), hoping that she will lead him to the bomber. A director with a more ghoulish or macabre intent might have twisted this into a form of cinematic necrophilia, but Tony Scott goes for the noble and the sincere – and we therefore care about both characters. Enormous fun.
5. Man on Fire (2004)
Tony Scott had tried to get an adaptation of the novel Man on Fire made in the early 80s, but ultimately he wasn’t involved with a version released in 1987. So when time came for a remake, he attacked the material with blood-and-guts intensity. This is essentially the kind of vigilante plot that Charles Bronson would have once starred in. But what lifts 2004’s Man on Fire above such tawdry fare is a combination of Denzel Washington’s soulful presence and Tony Scott’s visual brilliance… John Creasy (Washington) is an alcoholic loner with a shady past in the US special forces – ‘Do you think God will forgive us for what we’ve done?’ he asks a friend in an early scene. He’s looking for work in Mexico, where kidnapping people for the ransom money is rife, and soon bags a job as a bodyguard for a rich couple’s young daughter – the wise-beyond-her-years Pita (Dakota Fanning, fantastic). At first Creasy finds it difficult to spend time with a child – he finds her irritating and tiresome. But slowly, of course, a strong bond forms between the two. Creasy becomes as much a father figure as a security expert, coaching Pita to swim and teaching her some espionage tricks. There’s a genuine, believable warmth between the characters – all the better for setting up the plot development that’s coming with dreaded predictability. When Pita is snatched off the street by a gang, Scott films the sequence with thrilling innovation. Hand-cranked cameras and ramped editing emphasise the danger and create an expressionistic mood; the world is off-kilter and chaotic, Creasy’s distress is savagely dramatised. After recovering from a gunshot wound, Creasy then goes after the gang and what follows are scenes of brutal retribution that anticipate Washington’s Equalizer films by a decade. But the groundwork done in the movie’s opening 50 minutes saves all this from being gratuitous torture porn; we understand Creasy’s obsession. Man on Fire was Washington’s first film for Tony Scott in nine years (Robert De Niro had turned the part down) and he brings a monumental weight to the role. Creasy is a stock character – the suicidal loner with personal demons – and he’s involved in a stock relationship: the cynical, damaged man softened by an idealistic child. But in the hands of Scott, Washington and writer Brian Helgeland (LA Confidential), Creasy is so much more. Whether he’s quoting the Bible with a sadness in his eyes or buying a Linda Ronstadt CD to cheer himself up, we often infer a painful backstory and feel for Creasy straightaway… All this missed the mark for some viewers, however. The film was not a critical success, with American reviewer AO Scott – another ‘Anthony Scott’, coincidentally – saying some especially egregious things about his namesake. Others took against the film’s vigilantist politics or its unflattering portrayal of Mexico City. But while often labelled as a movie about revenge, Man on Fire is actually a mythical story of redemption. It absolutely *soars*.
4. The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009)
This film was originally going to be called simply Pelham 123, to distinguish it from the 1974 adaptation of John Godey’s novel. As in the 1970s movie, a group of terrorists seize a New York City subway train and hold the passengers ransom for a huge amount of money (Scott’s version ups the fee from $1 million to $10 million). Leading the bad guys this time is John Travolta, snarling his way Pacino-like through the role of Ryder – an aggressive man with a prison tat, a Fu Manchu moustache and a fondness for theatrical speechmaking. Meanwhile, the transit coordinator attempting to talk him down is Denzel Washington’s calm, personable Walter Garber, who just happens to be on duty when the incident takes place. Tony Scott had to work hard to convince Washington to take the role, eventually succeeding by pitching the character as ‘Mr Everyman’ – a contrast from the powerful military and law-enforcement men of their previous collaborations. Not that the movie is down-to-earth or mundane. Knowing that his action thriller is built around a phone call between two men who stay sat in their seats, Scott compensates by amping up the energy at every opportunity. We get hyper-quick cutting, more use of variable frame-rates, and – for scenes in the head offices of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority – an almost permanently moving camera, which arcs and spins dizzyingly around Garber’s desk. The result is an exciting popcorn movie with no fat on the bone. (These days, however, there is a sad subtext to The Taking of Pelham 123. The story’s climax is set on the Manhattan Bridge and features a character pleading for someone to end his life. Just three years after the film’s release, Tony Scott jumped to his death from a bridge in Los Angeles. At the time, rumours circulated that he was overwhelmed by a bad cancer diagnosis – perhaps a terminal one. The family soon denied this, as did the official coroner’s report, though Ridley Scott later talked of his brother dealing with a long-term cancer battle. Tony Scott was 68.)
3. Unstoppable (2010)
An example of pure cinema, this exhilarating disaster movie is built around a single, 90-minute action sequence. The plot begins when a moving freight train is allowed to leave a depot with no driver aboard – a potential disaster because it’s pulling explosive cargo. (The idea was gleamed from a real-life incident in 2001.) This one small mistake soon snowballs into a 100mph epic, as various plans are attempted to stop the ever-accelerating train before it careers through populated areas… Our leads are two bickering railroad workers who realise they are best placed to solve the crisis. Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington) is an old stager about to lose his job; Will Colson (Chris Pine) is a young buck whose heart isn’t in it; but they must work together to stop the runaway train. There’s just enough drama – Frank’s grief/loneliness, Will’s legal problems with his wife – to flesh out the muscles and make us care about these popcorn characters caught in the maelstrom of danger and action. Elsewhere, the cast is filled with actors able to make instant impressions, whether it be Lew Temple’s cowboy-ish railway worker or Rosario Dawson’s yardmaster Connie Hooper, both of whom deserve their own spin-offs. These people are deliberately unglamorous and blue-collar, because Tony Scott knew that all the ‘Hollywood’ is in the intensity and thrill of the high-speed chase. Making his final film before taking his own life in 2012, Scott shows a *masterful* control of visual storytelling. He knows exactly how to create, sustain and ratchet up tension – from a sedate start to a fever-pitch finale – while the physical movement of characters and vehicles always has the kind of clarity that’s often missing from CG-heavy blockbusters. This is a film of visceral physicality, with enormous stunts and crashes and near-misses done for real. Scenes in the train cabs, meanwhile, are sometimes shot in real moving trains, sometimes faked in a studio, but never feel anything less than vibrant and vital. Stripped down and unpretentious, Unstoppable is a cinematic masterpiece of dynamic movement, pulsating speed and widescreen panache. Both Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan have raved about this film. There are also echoes of Spielberg’s Duel in the way that huge, hulking, heavy vehicles are shot like they’re mythical creatures – massive dragons thundering through the Pennsylvania countryside.
The complex genesis of True Romance started with a script written by Quentin Tarantino‘s pal Roger Avery in the mid 1980s. Tarantino redrafted the idea, cutting out a significant B-plot that later became the basis for the movie Natural Born Killers, and intended to direct the movie himself. However, he then met Tony Scott through a mutual friend at Scott’s birthday party. Tarantino was an avowed fan – he’d loved Revenge, for example, and later affectionately mocked Top Gun in a cameo acting role in 1994 film Sleep with Me – so gave his blessing to Scott taking over the True Romance project. The result is a scintillating marriage of the two men’s energies. Christian Slater stars as Clarence, an optimistic slacker who likes comic books, obscure movies and Elvis Presley. After hooker-with-a-heart Alabama (a terrific Patricia Arquette) falls for him, they accidentally end up with a suitcase full of cocaine and head to LA to sell it. However, while they negotiate with a maniacal movie producer, the mob who own the drugs are on their tail… In some ways, the movie is a series of set-pieces, such as the opening 17 minutes in which Clarence and Alabama meet, fall in love and get married; Clarence’s tough-guy impression when he visits (and kills) her despicable pimp; the deliciously OTT gunfight in a hotel suite that climaxes the film; and most famously a confrontation between Clarence’s father and a gangster, which is an extraordinary, 10-minute scene of brutality, one-upmanship and acidic dialogue played with grit and guts by Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken. But to focus on these individually is to miss the film’s overall sweep, which is constantly imbued with whimsy, sincerity and hope. This film is a wish-fulfilment writ large, packing in sex and drugs and violence and melancholic music and cool quips and the thirst for a better life. Clarence is essentially an urban superhero; Alabama is a wet dream come to life. But that’s the point: this film is a *fantasy*; everything is naively romantic rather than boringly realistic. The hugely impressive cast is stacked full of class and talent – Slater, Arquette, Hopper, Walken, Val Kilmer, Gary Oldman, Brad Pitt, Bronson Pinchot, Samuel L Jackson, Michael Rapaport, Saul Rubinek, Conchata Ferrell, James Gandolfini, Chris Penn, Tom Sizemore, Ed Lauter – and Tony Scott shows an astonishing command of his plot and his characters, directing everything with so much pace and panache. Unlike the acrimony when Oliver Stone made a butchered version of Natural Born Killers, Tarantino enjoyed what Scott did with his material, which is semi-autobiographical and his most personal script to date. The story was inspired by his time working at VHS rental shop Video Archives, a mythologised part of Quentin’s pre-fame narrative, with the lead character’s workplace shifted to a comic-book store. ‘I didn’t get a suitcase full of cocaine, and I didn’t know any gangsters,’ Tarantino has said. ‘But even though all that stuff was movie shit, the people at Video Archives felt like it was this big-budget, Tony Scott-directed version of their childhood memories. It captured our aesthetic. It captured our je ne sais quoi.’
1. Enemy of the State (1998)
Enemy of the State is a 1,000-horsepower muscle car. When the accelerator is pushed and the engine revs, the road is eaten up and corners are taken at speed… The story is the kind of ‘innocent man caught up in a conspiracy he doesn’t understand’ plot that Alfred Hitchcock once revelled in, but updated for the ostentatious, energetic 1990s. Will Smith, deploying his major-league star quality, plays labour lawyer Robert Dean, who unwittingly acquires the videotape of a murder. When the killer, a corrupt spymaster played by Jon Voight, comes after him, Robert’s life is upturned. His house is ransacked, his wife doubts his innocence, and he loses his job. With the help of a shadowy ally called Brill (Gene Hackman), Robert must find out why he’s been targeted… Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) and Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Identity) both worked on the script, which harkens back to 70s paranoia thrillers like The Conversation, The Parallax View and All the President’s Men with its tale of unchecked, state-sanctioned surveillance and the corrupting power of American politics. (In fact, Enemy of the State positions itself as a spiritual sequel to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation by using a photograph of Gene Hackman from that earlier movie.) The tightly packed plot sees a thematic use of videos and camera and technology – the murder of an anti-surveillance politician is accidentally caught on a trap camera; Robert’s day job involves a conflict with the Mob over a videotape; the bad guys can call on CCTV feeds and live satellite imagery to hunt down fugitives (including some fantasy “zoom and enhance” that puts Blade Runner to shame). This Big Brother-riffing motif is just as topical now as it was in 1998, and means the movie hasn’t dated in any significant way. As for the cast, Smith, Voight and Hackman are the highlights but the film is populated with talented, watchable actors in supporting roles: Regina King as Robert’s wife; Lisa Bonet as his fixer and former girlfriend; Ian Hart, Jake Busey, Barry Pepper and Scott Caan as covert agents; Jason Lee as the geek who accidentally films the murder; Gabriel Byrne in a showy, two-scene cameo; Jack Black and Seth Green as tech boffins; Stuart Wilson as a politician; Tom Sizemore as a mob boss; Philip Baker Hall as Robert’s boss; and Jason Roberts as the congressman who’s assassinated because he won’t allow some fascist legislation to pass… Tony Scott, meanwhile, marshals all aspects of his filmmaking craft – cinematography, editing, mise en scene, music, choice of locations – to create a fluid yet pulsating beat that powers the 120 minutes of runtime. Extensive use of long lenses keeps every scene feeling claustrophobic and intense, even if staged on a grand scale, while the main plot is embellished with comedy asides and flamboyant action. This film is fast but never feels rushed; funny but never silly; compelling and exciting and gripping. The textbook example of the techno-thriller genre.
Agree with this ranking? Disagree? Let me know in the comments section below…
An occasional series about London locations with a connection to Bram Stroker’s Dracula…
Having recently visited Bram Stoker’s first London home, I’m now turning my attentions around the corner – to the building where the author of Dracula earned a living for nearly 30 years. Stoker was manager of the Lyceum Theatre in London’s Covent Garden from 1878, when the Irishman left Dublin for a new life in the UK, until 1905. He also, somehow, found time to write several novels while working here, including the most famous vampire story of them all. Do modern-day audiences, who flock to the Lyceum to see an elaborate stage musical about anthropomorphic singing animals, know that swathes of the novel Dracula were written backstage?
Although Covent Garden has had a theatre with the name The Lyceum since 1765, the current incarnation at 21 Wellington Street dates from 1834 and was built after an older venue on the nearby Strand was destroyed by fire. The only part of the 19th-century building to survive today is the portico pillared entrance, one of the grandest and most striking in London. There was a significant rebuild in Stoker’s time – carried out in 1904 and overseen by the prolific West End theatre architect Bertie Crews – then a massive refurbishment project in 1996, which returned the Lyceum to a theatre after 50 years as a ballroom and music venue. (The site is now Grade-II listed.)
The period of history we’re most interested in, of course, is when Bram Stoker worked here – and that was under the stewardship of Sir Henry Irving (1838-1905). Knighted in 1895 (the first actor so to be), Irving was a powerhouse of the Victorian stage. Working as an actor/director who controlled all aspects of production, he was famed for his captivating performances and his revivals of Shakespeare. Not everyone was a fan: George Bernard Shaw once quipped that Irving spoke ‘in flat contradiction of the lines, and positively acted Shakespeare off the stage.’ But the productions were mostly popular, with Irving finding success in roles such as Iago, Macbeth and Iachimo. His private life was more murky, however: he abandoned a wife and child, and carried on a long affair with his regular co-star Ellen Terry.
Before Irving (above) and Stoker took over the Lyceum, the venue had been famed for entertainments from the both the upper end of the respectability scale (opera, Shakespeare) and the lower (phantasmagoria shows, displays of Madame Tussauds waxworks). The two men’s focus was now legitimate theatre and they wanted a prestige auditorium. Before a debut production of Hamlet starring Irving and Terry, a number of changes and upgrades were made to the building’s interior – all sanctioned and overseen by Bram Stoker. The architecture was improved and the seating plan refreshed, while a new colour scheme of sage green and turquoise gave the space an elegant, prime Victorian feel. ‘Plasterers, paper-hangers, painters and upholsterers were tumbling over each other,’ Stoker later recalled of this hectic period.
When I arrive at the Lyceum Theatre for a visit one weekend, there’s none of this hustle and bustle. It’s early morning, the doors are all locked up and the only sign of life is someone sweeping the pavement. The grand facade of the building is adorned with posters and hoardings for the smash-hit musical The Lion King, which has been running here since 1999. But I also spot a small plaque that was unveiled by the actor Sir Ian McKellan in February 2006 to mark the centenary of Henry Irving’s death. As well as details about Irving, it states, ‘Whilst working at the Lyceum as Irving’s acting manager, Bram Stoker wrote Dracula.’ (In truth, Stoker was more an administrator than an ‘acting manager’. He wasn’t officially involved in the artist direction of the productions.)
We can assume Stoker spent many hours in his small alcove at the Lyceum, which was just off Irving’s main office, writing several of his books. Dracula was the one lastingly famous novel from a prolific career; he also wrote many now-forgotten works. Perhaps spending so many hours in the Lyceum meant that Stoker took general inspiration from the building’s fair share of gruesome and macabre myths when concocting his genre-defining vampire story. In the 1880s, for example, during Stoker’s first decade as house manager, a couple in the dress circle claimed to have seen the ghostly image of an elderly woman holding a severed head in her lap. Various productions of this period also dabbled in devilry and mythological monsters.
More prosaically, one link to the Lyceum definitely made its way into the finished text of Dracula: the novel’s major character in the opening few chapters, Jonathan Harker, was named after scenery painter Joseph Harker. (Joseph’s son Gordon – pictured below in 1940 film Saloon Bar – became an actor who appeared in some early Alfred Hitchcock movies; his great-great-grandaughter is the actress Susanna Harker.)
In his day job, meanwhile, everyone agreed that Stoker ran a tight ship. With responsibility for the financial and logistical organisation of the venue, he kept meticulous accounts (which had ‘Byzantine security built in,’ according to biographer David J Skal) and he introduced several innovations such as numbered seating and advanced ticket sales. He readied the theatre personally for each performance, briefing the ushers, ordering the doors opened and greeting distinguished visitors. One celebrity patron was the Prime Minister, William Gladstone, who shocked Stoker by quoting a passage from Stoker’s novel The Snake’s Pass. ‘To see Stoker in his element was to see him standing at the top of the theatre’s stairs, surveying a “first night” crowd trooping up them,’ remembered author Horace Wyndham. The theatre thrived under his steady hand, both in London and when the company went out of numerous tours of both Britain and America.
I soon take a walk around the side of the building, past the stage door, and onto Burleigh Street. Here, I find the rear side of the Lyceum Theatre. Doorways in this wall were long ago blocked off and remodelled, but in a lovely touch three names are now embossed above where the doorframes once stood. All three have deep connections with the Lyceum. There’s Henry Irving, of course, and Ellen Terry (1847-1928), who was a celebrated actor in her own right; as well as success on stage in productions by Shakespeare, Shaw, Ibsen and Barrie, and being painted in character as Lady Macbeth by John Singer Sargent (below), she lived long enough to have a film career too.
But the third name is most relevant to me today. It’s an acknowledgement of the three decades of service Bram Stoker gave this place…
In a neat connection, one of the few times Stoker and Irving were photographed together was when they were using one of these now-blocked-off doors on this side of the building… In the image, you can see Irving in his top hat approaching a hansom cab. Bram is just leaving the doorway, faithfully following his employer. As in every surviving photograph of Stoker, he looks serious, pensive and humourless. This is a real shame, as it seems this is a gross misrepresentation. He was known by friends and colleagues as a warm and gregarious man.
But why did Bram Stoker stay at the Lyceum for 27 years? He had ambitions to write full-time and also qualified as a lawyer. The answer, many biographers have argued, was that he was obsessed with – and possibly in love with – his employer. Stoker himself described his role as a ‘loyal and devoted servitor’ to Henry Irving, which for Dracula buffs brings to mind the character of Renfield.
Renfield is an inmate of an asylum who falls under Count Dracula’s thrall, developing a fierce and sycophantic codependence on the vampire. Henry Irving, a man known for being both charismatic and ruthless, has often been cited as an influence on Dracula. (Stoker himself never confirmed or denied the theory.) Can we infer a Dracula/Renfield relationship with Bram and his boss? Stoker once said that, during their first meeting in the 1870s, ‘so great was the magnetism of his genius, so profound was the sense of his dominancy that I sat spellbound.’ But how deep his feelings really ran can now only be speculation.
On the matter of what Henry Irving thought of Dracula, however, we do have a clue. In May 1897, just a few days before the publication of Stoker’s masterpiece novel, Bram organised a formal reading of the text by a group of actors at the Lyceum – a standard ploy to retain the theatrical copyright for the author. Henry Irving was not involved, despite Stoker’s wish that he would play the Count. The great thespian overheard some of the dialogue, though, and was reported as giving a one-word appraisal: ‘Dreadful.’
But we’ll cover that extraordinary story – the first ever ‘performance’ of Dracula – in the next chapter of this series…
Sources and notes:
I visited the Lyceum Theatre on Saturday 20 November 2021 and Southampton Street on Saturday 8 January 2022.
The Covent Garden Ladies (2005) by Hallie Rubenhold
Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker; I used both my paperback copy (Oxford World Classics, 1998, with an introduction by Maud Ellman) and this online version.
London’s Hidden Walks Volume 2 (2017) by Stephen Millar
The Lost Journal of Bram Stoker (2012) edited by Elizabeth Miller and Dacre Stoker
Regency Revolution (2019) by Robert Morrison
Shakespeare: The World as Stage (2007) by Bill Bryson
Something in the Blood: The Untold Story of Bram Stoker, the Man Who Wrote Dracula (2016) by David J Skal
Walking Literary London (2001) by Roger Tagholm
Walking Shakespeare’s London (2004) by Nicholas Robins
An occasional series about London locations with a connection to Bram Stroker’s Dracula…
On 22 November 1877, Bram Stoker wrote in his journal, ‘London in view!’ The future author of Dracula was then a 30-year-old civil servant living in Dublin. He had just found out about a potential job in the British capital and would move there the following year. So for this latest instalment in my series about ‘Dracula’s London’, I’m exploring the area of the city where he first lived and worked…
Bram Stoker (above) had been a keen theatre fan since his youth and was working as an unpaid drama critic for the Dublin Evening Mail when he met the English actor Henry Irving in 1876. The latter was touring a production of Hamlet and the two men soon bonded, as much over the Bram’s obvious adoration as anything else. While popular with audiences, Irving (below) was not a critical darling – today he would be considered an old ham who used tics and gimmicks – but the effusive Stoker was a ready-made PR man.
Then, in 1878, Irving telegrammed Stoker and summoned the Irishman to Glasgow, where he was on tour. Irving confirmed that he had taken over the Lyceum Theatre in London and he wanted his friend to run it for him. Stoker did not need long to consider and quickly got his affairs in order. Racing back to Dublin, he quit his dreary desk job and married his sweetheart, Florence Balcombe. She was a former beau of Oscar Wilde, who once described her as having ‘the most perfectly beautiful face I ever saw,’ while her granddaughter later called her a ‘remote woman cursed by her great beauty and the need to maintain it’. Then, just five days after their wedding, the Stokers left Ireland and moved to London.
Their first address was a rented flat at 7 Southampton Street in Covent Garden. Covent Garden is a matrix of ancient streets nestled between the Strand, the City, Bloomsbury and the West End. Its famous central piazza was once a haunt of actors and poets, and was famed for its taverns, brothels and coffee houses; later it housed a hectic fruit-and-veg market. Today the area is a tourist Mecca with arts-and-craft shops, museums and cafes. The Royal Opera House isn’t far away; neither are theatres such as the Novello, the Adelphi and the Theatre Royal. Around the corner from Southampton Street is Maiden Lane, where the artist JMW Turner was born in 1775, where the 17th-century poet Andrew Marvell once lived, and where the actor William Terriss – a friend of Bram Stoker’s – was murdered in 1897, the year of Dracula’s publication.
When I arrive in Southampton Street to see the Stokers’ first London home for myself, I find that No.7 is still here, part of a grand, five-storey, red-brick block on the east side of the road. The individual addresses have been combined, and a wide stretch of this building’s ground floor is now taken up by athletic clothing shop Cotswold. Above the shop are offices. I can work out roughly where the entrance to No.7 will have been, and can see a mightily impressive projecting clock to the right.
The Stokers’ top-floor flat would always have an emotional connection for the couple: Bram and Florence’s only child, Irving Noel Thornley Stoker (named after Henry Irving, of course, but always known as Noel), was born here on 30 December 1879. But they lived on Southampton Street relatively briefly. The family left the cluttered, always-busy Covent Garden in 1881 and moved to the much more genteel Chelsea.
Southampton Street was named for the Restoration politician Sir Thomas Wriothesely, the 4th Earl of Southampton, whose family had been bequeathed the land. William Shakespeare dedicated two poems to Sir Thomas’s father: some scholars infer a romance from this; others simply argue that Shakespeare was sucking up to a potential investor. As well as the creator of Dracula, Southampton Street was also once home to the chemist Ambrose Godfrey, the inventor of the fire extinguisher, who lived at No.31. In fact, today I can see a green plaque marking his former home.
The publisher Sir George Newnes, who founded The Strand magazine and published many Sherlock Holmes stories, had offices at No.8 (in the same building as the Stokers’ flat). Vincent Van Gogh once worked at the art dealership Goupil & Cie at No.17. The physician Charles Combe was born on this street, as was WS Gilbert of Gilbert & Sullivan fame. Coincidentally, Stoker and Gilbert later formed a 25-year friendship, which only ended when the latter died while trying to save a struggling swimmer in 1911. At one point, Bram and Florence had babysat Gilbert’s pet lemur. ‘It sat on a chandelier and defecated profusely into a bowl of fruit,’ reports the zoology historian Malcolm Peaker.
Yet another famous residence on Southampton Street was the Georgian actor, writer and producer David Garrick – a man who was wildly influential in forming the modern idea of the British theatre. Above the door to No.27, at the north end of the street, is an imposing, ornate, bronze plaque telling us he made his home here between 1750 and 1772. It was installed in 1901, 20 years after the Stokers moved out – but, given his fanboy adulation of actors and the theatre, it is inconceivable that Bram was unaware that the great Garrick had once lived across the road.
Of course, the Stokers didn’t choose Southampton Street as their first London residence at random. We’re only two minutes walk away from the reason the couple upended their Dublin lives and moved to England in the first place: Henry Irving’s Lyceum Theatre at 21 Wellington Street.
Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.
When a maverick scientist tries to cure his own blood disease, he unwittingly gives himself superpowers…
Given that it’s only an adjunct to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, linked by some legal technicalities and a risible cameo, perhaps we shouldn’t judge the 2022 movie Morbius by MCU standards. Maybe that’s like critically appraising a school nativity because the cast features the child of a Royal Shakespeare Company actor. The best of the Marvel canon are likeable, well-made entertainments, comprising exciting action, clever comedy, intriguing ideas and – most notably – characters we can believe in and root for (even if they’re billionaire tech geniuses or amnesiac alien superbeings). Some are better than others, but none is a turkey.
Morbius, on the other hand, is the dead, rotting corpse of a turkey that’s been thrown into your living room while you try to eat your dinner.
The focus is Dr Michael Morbius, played with fatuous self-importance by Jared Leto. Suffering from a rare blood disease, medical genius Morbius searches for a cure by experimenting with some vampire bats from Costa Rica. After he injects some of the creatures’ blood into his own system – look away now if you’re a fan of sci-fi plots having at least the veneer of plausibility – this gives him bat-like abilities such as sonar-level hearing, super-speed and the ability to fly. It cures him of his ailment, but means he must now feed on human blood in order to survive.
His benefactor is his childhood friend Milo (Matt Smith), who also has the same disease. But when *he* uses the cure, he embraces its vampiric overtones and – because reasons – becomes a villain. Also in the mix, though all woefully underwritten and unexplored, are Morbius’s colleague Martine Bancroft (Adria Arjona); his father figure Emil Nicholas (Jared Harris); and two FBI agents investigating the scientist, Al Rodriguez (Al Madrigal) and Simon Stroud (Tyrese Gibson).
For 100 minutes, the movie flits through a storyline that is both arrhythmic and staggeringly simplistic. Michael is set up as a moody loner who thumbs his nose at the medical establishment… We get scenes of him trying out his new powers… His brotherly connection to Milo is explored in a desultory manner… The FBI agents skulk around not achieving much… Anything that skirts too close to vampire mythology is downplayed (violence is neutered or off-screen; sexuality is nonexistent; Morbius dismissively says he’s ‘not that kind of vampire’)… and there’s lots of cheesy CGI and drama-by-voiceover…
There are episodes of Saturday-morning kids cartoons that have better and more complex storytelling than this.
Meanwhile, most of the secondary cast are exasperatingly bland. The film only has one significant female character (how is that even possible in 2022?!) and she’s a total nonentity, simply being someone to *be there* while Morbius says things. Her only ‘characterisation’ can be found in the publicity materials, which sees the actress embarrass herself by trying to convince us that Martine is ‘the cleverest in the room’. Elsewhere, it seems that the filmmakers decided to make some characters *less* interesting. FBI agent Stroud was shown in the pre-release trailers as having a robotic arm, but that’s not mentioned in the finished cut. Actor Tyrese Gibson, whose charisma and comic timing have lifted numerous scenes in the Fast & Furious franchise, must surely have regretted signing on for such a boring role.
The one exception to all this is Matt Smith, who takes his villainous role and runs to the hills with it. His former Doctor Who co-star Karen Gillan (who stars as Nebula in the main MCU series) encouraged him to take the gig, and he clearly decided that Milo should bring as much personality and danger to the film as possible. Whether doing little self-satisfied dances, or quipping with Morbius, or fighting his friend in the New York subway system (a sequence filmed in a London Underground station that’s been slightly redressed), Smith is a delight.
The movie doesn’t deserve him. Morbius is ghastly. People who don’t enjoy superhero or comic-book films probably assume that they’re all like this – this bad, this tatty, this hobbled-together, this lacking in ideas and texture and depth – which does an entire genre a disservice. And this is not the first time that Jared Leto has had a high-profile role is a shitty superhero flick. A few years earlier, he played a gangsta-rap-inflected Joker in the truly terrible Suicide Squad and the equally shambolic director’s cut of Justice League. From Batman’s nemesis to a bat-man scientist: quite a downfall.
Then, just when you thought it was safe to leave the Bat-cave of chaos that is Morbius, Batman himself shows up in quite probably the single worst sequence in any superhero film yet. In a post-credit sting to tee up a sequel, actor Michael Keaton, who wowed as a cinematic Caped Crusader in 1989 and 1992, reprises his MCU character of Adrian Toomes, last seen in Spider-Man: Homecoming. You see, Morbius is part of a complex shared universe with the Venom films, and Venom: Let There Be Carnage created a crossover event with the MCU.
So this is now used to bring Toomes into the world of Morbius. Keaton is given the most inept dialogue imaginable – drivel intended to explain, very quickly, why he’s jumped realities and now wants to form a team of super-villains – which seems to have been scrawled on the back of a fag packet by a six-year-old. The fact that nobody saw fit to make the scenes even a bat’s wing’s width more classy or snappy is all you need to know about this awful, awful movie.
An occasional series about London locations with a connection to Bram Stroker’s Dracula…
For this latest chapter in my quest to learn about Dracula’s London, I’m not focusing on a place used in the 1897 novel (like I did when I visited a Hampstead churchyard). Instead, this article looks at a location with an important link to author Bram Stoker. ln 1911, 14 years after his novel Dracula had been published, Bram (below) and his family moved to 26 St George’s Square in Pimlico, south-west London. This was the house in which he died the following year…
St George’s Square is a strange place today. The moneyed grandeur of Victorian Britain is still there in the townhouses and the genteel central garden (pictured below). But this is unlike the reassuringly calm spaces you find in some other London squares. For one thing, there’s much more bustle and through-traffic. And for another, St George’s Square isn’t a square: the two long sides are approximately 300 metres, yet the width is only about 60 metres. This oddity comes from the fact the development began as two parallel roads, only being converted into a ‘square’ a few years later. The plan was initially laid out in 1839 by Thomas Cubitt, a builder who was responsible for the layout and appearance of huge swathes of London. His work still defines much of Pimlico, Bloomsbury, Belgravia and the Embankment; he also designed the east front of Buckingham Palace.
When I arrive in St George’s Square one Sunday lunchtime, however, I’m disappointed to discover that the Stokers’ final home has gone. A row of houses on the west side of St George’s Square was demolished in the 1960s, taking No.26 with it, and the site is now home to some sunken basketball courts associated with a nearby school.
This is a great shame for Stoker buffs, because the great man died here on Saturday 20 April 1912 – aged just 64. The world was still reeling from the sinking of the Titanic five days before, but we don’t know to what extent Stoker was aware of the tragedy. He may have been unconscious or in a coma, because the cause and details of his death are minor mysteries. Bram had suffered more than one stroke in recent years, which had impaired his movement, eyesight and general health, while ‘exhaustion’ was euphemistically mentioned as the reason for his demise. The writer’s grandnephew and biographer Daniel Farson caused uproar by revealing in the 1970s that the death certificate had cited tertiary syphilis – though this may have been Farson misunderstanding some scientific jargon. Stoker’s modern-day relative Dacre Stoker, meanwhile, has argued that maybe asthma was the killer. Bram had also been a very sickly child, confined to bed for several years, and there is confusion over what was wrong with him then too. With no medical records available, historians have mooted theories such as rheumatic fever, a heart condition, a weak immune system, a respiratory issue, or even that it was all psychosomatic.
But if the building where Stoker died has long gone, at least this slice of Pimlico has lots of other interesting aspects. For example, St George’s Square has had several noteworthy residents. The crime writer Dorothy L Sayers once lived here briefly in 1920. Stephen Potter, who found success writing spoof self-help books, lived at No.56 in 1924; the same address belonged to Francis Crick, who helped decipher the DNA molecule, in the 1940s. And Lady Anne Ritchie, the writer and eldest daughter of William Makepeace Thackeray, lived at No.109. Ritchie was a friend of the Stokers’ as well as their neighbour. Bram’s wife, Florence, appealed to her for financial help in 1911, now that Bram was in poor health and unable to earn money.
Meanwhile, opposite where No.26 used to be is St Saviour’s Pimlico, a small and attractive 19th-century church… which has a wonderful and *purely coincidental* connection to Dracula! The building was designed in a Gothic style by Thomas Cundy Jr, the son of the revered architect Sir Thomas Cundy, and consecrated in 1864. The writers Sir Compton and Faith Mackenzie married here in 1905. In the 1970s, Lady Diana Spencer – later Diana, Princess of Wales – worked at the kindergarten in the church hall.
In 1912, a new curate called Rev Gerard Olivier took over. Descended from French Huguenots, he was a High Church advocate who had moved his family from the countryside to London and taken residence at 22 Lupus Street, just around the corner from St Saviour’s. And he had a young son called Laurence, who soon became a choirboy at the church.
Much later in life, after a glittering career as one of Britain’s leading thespians, Laurence Olivier played Professor Van Helsing in a 1979 film adaptation of Dracula. The acting giant had not been enamoured with the project (‘God, the shame of it,’ he wrote to his son, Tarquin), though it earned him $750,000 for 10 weeks work. It is an unanswerable question, of course, but did Olivier know that in childhood he had been Bram Stoker’s near neighbour? Olivier’s father became curate at St Saviour’s in 1912 – the year of Bram’s death – so perhaps a five-year-old Laurence and an ailing Stoker even passed each other in the street. In another eerie link, the two men also both lived on Cheyne Walk and St Leonard’s Terrace in Chelsea… and in the case of the latter address, it was actually the same house! (Olivier lived there decades after Stoker had breathed his last, of course.)
The actor’s connections with Bram Stoker do not end there. In 1917, Stoker’s friend the actress Dame Ellen Terry saw a young Olivier in one of his earliest theatrical roles and wrote in her diary, ‘Already a great actor.’ And when Olivier died in 1989, his ashes were interred in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner, right next to the remains of Bram Stoker’s long-time friend and mentor Sir Henry Irving. At the funeral, the actor Frank Finlay – who, to keep the thread of Dracula connections going, had played Van Helsing for the BBC two years before Olivier’s go at the character – carried a sword that had been used on stage by Irving when playing Richard III in 1877.
As I walk back to Pimlico tube station, sad that I was unable to see the building where Bram Stoker died, I spot a blue plaque on the front of No.33, a house on the north edge of St George’s Square. Walking over, I see that it’s marking where Major Walter Clopton Wingfield lived. After a career in the 1st Dragoon Guards, serving in India and China, he codified the modern sport of lawn tennis, patenting the format in 1874 and publishing two books on the rules. He died on 18 April 1912 – just two days before his fellow St George’s Square resident Bram Stoker. But while he gets a heritage plaque, as does DNA discoverer Francis Crick, sadly there’s no mention anywhere in the vicinity that the creator of Dracula expired here. I can see no plaque or tourist information board. Like his house, Stoker has left Pimlico for good.
Sources and notes:
My visit to St George’s Square, Pimlico, was on Sunday 7 November 2021.
Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker; I used both my paperback copy (Oxford World Classics, 1998, with an introduction by Maud Ellman) and this online version.
The Lost Journal of Bram Stoker (2012) edited by Elizabeth Miller and Dacre Stoker
Olivier: The Authorised Biography (2005) by Terry Coleman
Something in the Blood: The Untold Story of Bram Stoker, the Man Who Wrote Dracula (2016)) by David J Skal
Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.
A group of 10 godlike beings living on Earth face their biggest challenge in centuries when monsters known as Deviants make a reappearance…
Eternals director Chloé Zhao has pointed out that her film was originally intended to be released soon after 2019’s Avengers: Endgame… and not ‘at a time when everyone is having an existential crisis.’ When Eternals finally debuted in November 2021, the world was 18 months into a global pandemic and most people’s lives had been upturned beyond prior belief. The very form of cinema was under attack too, from both falling audience numbers and the lure of streaming services.
However, in a strange way, the enforced delay helped this movie feel more relevant. This is a story about a lot of things – hubris, faith, family, trust – but everything is weaved around a multi-character existential crisis. A long-standing status quo is no longer sacrosanct and, in effect, gods start to question their roles in society. It’s weighty stuff. And the film matches this with some appropriately epic window-dressing – events take place on a galactic canvas, across millennia, with a huge roster of heroes, in locations ranging from 5000BC Mesopotamia to outer space via hipster Camden Lock, and there are some massive special effects that fill the frame with wonder.
Thousands of years ago, a group of 10 Eternals – never-ageing super-beings from the planet Olympus – were sent to Earth to protect the burgeoning human race from savage monsters called Deviants. Once the Deviants had been thwarted, however, the Eternals stayed. As they awaited further instruction from their omniscient overlord, Arishem, they gradually drifted apart and started to build new lives on Earth…
As things pick up in the present day, Sersi (Gemma Chan) and Sprite (Lia McHugh) are living in London… but their normality is ruined when a Deviant appears and attacks them and Sersi’s human boyfriend Dane (Kit Harington) after a night out! Oh no, the Deviants are back! The heroes manage to defeat the beast with the help of another Eternal – and Sersi’s ex – Ikaris (Richard Madden), who arrives on the scene in the nick of time. But knowing they now face a new threat, Sersi (who’s been working at the Natural History Museum), Sprite (who’s cursed to always look like she’s a teenager) and Ikaris (who, we learn, was the inspiration for the myth of Icarus) decide on a plan…
‘We need to find the others,’ says Ikaris 19 minutes into the film, referring to their fellow Eternals. He says the exact same line after 62 minutes too, because getting the gang back together takes a whopping 88 minutes of runtime. As the characters globetrot around, collecting colleagues one or two at a time and explaining the same information more than once, it really makes you wonder why these pricks don’t just WhatsApp each other. In fact, given the episodic quest to assemble a multi-character gang, perhaps this idea would have worked better as a Disney+ miniseries. But then again, Eternals’ widescreen spectacle is very welcome in a time when cinema is fighting against the pull of the streaming services.
At least the quest is dotted with flashbacks to the team’s time hanging out in ancient cultures and gently nudging humanity along by inventing the plough and drinking in taverns. But while we learn more about these characters, all this stuff does highlight a fundamental issue. There are just too many lead heroes for one film. Like the 13 dwarves in The Hobbit films, we simply don’t have a chance to get to know them that well. Several Eternals soon default to stock attributes: the deaf one, the punchy one, the Angelina Jolie one.
An additional crisis strikes early on as Sersi and co travel to South Dakota to visit their motherly leader, Ajak (Salma Hayek), and find that she’s been killed – seemingly by a Deviant. We don’t see the death, however, which will make any Agatha Christie fans in the audience suspicious: her plots often have events happening ‘off-stage’ in order to hide what really happened…
With this tragedy weighing on their shoulders – and Sersi having taken over as leader – Sersi, Sprite and Ikaris track down Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), who’s been spending the last century or so becoming a star in the Bollywood film industry. (He boasts that his new musical is based on Ikaris.) Kingo also has a valet – ‘Just like Alfred in Batman,’ we’re told in one of several cheeky references to non-Marvel genre stories – who then follows the team around shooting a video diary. As you do when the world’s at stake. The gang next head to an Australian desert to find Thena (Angelina Jolie), a psychologically troubled Eternal who’s being watched over by her friend Gilgamesh (Don Lee); he mixes fighting skills with apron-wearing domesticity. Next on the itinerary is a visit to a forest in South America to find the psychic – and tediously grumpy – Druig (Barry Keoghan); then the ever-growing group recruit Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), a gizmo boffin who’s now enjoying being a middle-class husband and father, and finally Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), a super-speedy deaf girl who has seemingly been spending centuries hanging out in the team’s spaceship on her own.
The mission to reunite the Eternals, which in a film like Ocean’s 11 would be a quickly cut montage before the main action, more or less *is* the story. The Deviant threat never feels that vivid, so the emphasis is on character stories. Phastos’s new family dynamic and Thena’s mental-health challenges are interesting subplots, while the character of Ikaris works very nicely as a kind of satirical Superman (with a dark subtext that only becomes clear in the final act). The Sersi/Icarus/Dan love triangle also has an added level of fun because it features two actors from Game of Thrones and third playing a character whose name is very similar to one used in that show. (Music composer Ramin Djawadi also worked on both Thrones and Eternals; his score here is terrific.)
That sums up Eternals, in fact. The film, all 150 minutes of it, may lack a logical progression or much sense of urgency, but there are plenty of classy moments and details to keep it enjoyable. The pacing is slow but unhurried rather than boring. The design work often has a real beauty, especially the costumes, even if some of that work is blighted by the usual Marvel reliance on cartoony, green-screeny special effects. And this is a noticeably diverse film, with Marvel ticking off many firsts for their superhero series: the first deaf character, the first gay superhero, the first Korean superhero, the first sex scene…
But the existential crisis comes to the fore when the reunited heroes learn a shock truth: planet Earth is soon to be destroyed by ‘the emergence’, an event which will birth a new celestial being. And it’s even worse than that: apparently the Eternals have been through all this before on other planets but have their memories wiped each time by Arishem. They are essentially robots, artificial creations incapable of evolution. As well as throwing the heroes into a chaos of self-doubt and nailing down the movie’s general theme, there’s a nice connection here to a scene from before the crisis kicked in. At the Natural History Museum in London, Sersi had joked, ‘I know I’m late, Charlie,’ as she passed Charles Darwin’s statue in the central hall. An acknowledgment of the Darwinian life cycle, perhaps? Or is it a gag about Covid delaying the film’s release?
Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.
When your superhero film about a relatively minor comic-book character makes close to a billion dollars, the pull to produce a sequel must be practically irresistible. But while Venom, the seventh-biggest box-office hit of 2018, had its charms, it was hardly rewriting the superhero rulebook. The story was straight-forward sci-fi, the characters were mostly perfunctory, the action scenes were nothing that haven’t been seen before and the special effects failed to grab the attention. If it hadn’t been for charismatic star Tom Hardy and his ability to keep things fizzing, the movie would have been quite forgettable.
Coincidentally, follow-up Let There Be Carnage, which came along three years later, was also seventh on the box-office chart (albeit in a year massively affected by COVID and a crisis of cinema-going). Perhaps this equity of ranking was due to the sequel essentially being more of the same. Just like in Venom, there are alien-parasite shenanigans, a few comedy scenes and some bombastic, CG-heavy action. But that’s not to say that this film is unwelcome. For all its safeness and predictability, the original movie had ended up being watchable and oddly likeable. Not everything has to be Casablanca or The Godfather. There’s room for fluff too.
Again, the storyline is streamlined to just one threat. Woody Harrelson had cameoed at the end of the first film as Cletus Kasady, a natural-born serial killer who now wants to confess his sins to journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy). Eddie, you’ll remember, secretly has an alien organism called Venom sharing his body – they’ve essentially become two personalities in one person. But when he goes to a prison to visit Kasady (who thankfully has rethought an eccentric hairdo since film one), Eddie gets a bit too close to the security bars. Psychopath Kasady bites him and draws blood. And some of *Venom’s* blood therefore gets into the killer’s system… which… *somehow*… creates a whole new separate, sentient alien symbiote who can take control of Kasady’s body and morph it at will. This new creature is called Carnage and is voiced by Harrelson.
Thankfully, given this dreary plot that ultimately ends up with two CGI characters fighting each other boringly in an under-renovation church, the film has other pleasures. The humour often lands – ‘Let me eat him!’ shouts Venom when a cop is being difficult – while the bickering between host and parasite has a nice rhythm to it, especially when you consider that both characters are played by Tom Hardy. There’s also a whimsical running gag about chickens. A sequence of Venom going to a nightclub misses the mark, however. There’s an attempt at a topical metaphor, with Venom telling a room full of diversity-welcoming kids that he just wants to be himself rather than hiding who he is, but the comedy is forced as his hulking alien form is assumed to be an eccentric costume.
Part of the problem is that this sequence comes during a period of the story where Venom has left Eddie and gone off on his own. As with the original, the movie works best when focused on the conceit of Eddie sharing his body with an alien. Director Andy Serkis – a man who knows a thing or two about multiple personalities after his time playing Gollum/Sméagol in the Lord of the Rings series – has said that he looked on Eddie/Venom as an ‘Odd Couple’ pairing. But alongside all this bickering and oneupmanship, the two also feel like two sides of the same coin. Venom acts as Eddie’s conscience, a private voice that brings up uncomfortable truths. For example, when Eddie learns that his ex-girlfriend Anne is getting married he has to pretend to be happy for her… but he (and we) can hear Venom voicing the pair’s frustration and anger inside his head. Sadly, Anne herself is even less of a factor in this film than she was in 2018, popping up halfway through to solve a plot problem, bring Eddie and Venom back together after their argument, and be a damsel in distress during the finale. But actor Michelle Williams is great value, making a big impression with few moments.
Speaking of that finale, it comes round awfully quickly. While many viewers will applaud Let There Be Carnage’s sub-100-minute runtime, this brevity results in there being no real second act to the story. We go from set-up to climax far too swiftly, never getting to know Harrelson’s Kasidy on anything other than a surface level. Also underused is Naomie Harris – she gives a punky, scuzzy performance as Kasidy’s long-time love Louise, who’s first seen in a Hannibal Lector-style cage prison, but with little screentime and a superhero power (being able to scream really loudly) standing in for character development, she’s never anything but the bad guy’s moll.
Incidentally, Hardy and Harris are far from the only Brits in this film. The great Stephen Graham churns out a Noo Jerzee accent as a police officer who has history with Louise, while small roles are filled by faces from UK television: Holby City’s Rosie Marcel, Inside No.9’s Reece Shearsmith, EastEnders’ Sian Webber. Another Brit then pops up in a tag scene hidden away in the end credits…
In a tease for a future film, Eddie and Venom are mysteriously transported into an alternative reality… which we viewers soon realise is the continuity of the all-conquering Marvel Cinematic Universe. Tom Holland’s version of Peter Parker, most recently seen being outed as the superhero Spider-Man in 2019’s Far From Home, is on the TV news. What this means for the multiverse and the timelines and Venom’s role in the wider Marvel mythology are questions for another film. But the move is an apt pay-off for a movie that, despite some flaws and failings, knows that having fun can be its own reward.