9 May 2010

Men Are Talking

As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.

"It's called male bonding- haven't you even seen Wild Hogs?" shouts the obnoxious titamaboob in Hot Tub Time Machine. And funnily enough, there's been another film with similar themes in cinemas lately, in the form of Neil Marshall's muscular and gritty Ninth Legion film, Centurion. So which is better- stripping off to get sent back to 1986, or being stripped by angry natives and sent running through a snowy wasteland? The answer may surprise you!
Boasting the most perfunctory title since Snakes on a Plane, the premise of Hot Tub Time Machine must be fairly obvious. Adam and Nick attempt to reinvigorate their friend Lou after he tries to commit suicide by booking a weekend away at the ski resort that the three of them went to as teenagers. With Adam's nephew Jacob along for the weekend, the resort has become dilapidated and boring. Taking a dip, the four are plunged back in time to the resort at its greatest. They resolve not to change anything for fear of ruining the present, but instead find themselves going all out and endangering Jacob's very existence.

Given how the characters variously compare their predicament to Terminator, The Butterfly Effect, Timecop et al, it's telling that no one mentions the most famous film in the time travel sub-genre. Let me take you through some of Hot Tub Time Machine. Jacob is in danger of never being born by events in the past. An asshole bully prevents the gang from getting home. Nick has to get up on stage to perform with his band at one point, and sneaks in a couple of songs that haven't been written in 1986. It has Crispin bloody Glover in it. It's Back to the Future! The trouble is, I liked it better when it was actually called Back to the Future- it was a lot funnier without the cum jokes, Noughties pop culture references and post-Hangover comedy formula.
Don't get me wrong, I did laugh a lot at Hot Tub Time Machine, but it falls over itself with plot. There's nothing as rigid as Doc Brown's rules of non-intervention- indeed, the film takes an even more cavalier approach to cause and effect than Bill and Ted. It's a comedy, so this would be fine if we didn't have Chevy Chase as a spectral hot tub repairman telling them that changing events would be disastrous, and then it blatantly isn't- couldn't we have dispensed with that altogether? In this and other areas, it's clear that someone really screwed up with the editing. While its intentions are halfway honourable and it does do a quite spectacular job of recreating the late 1980s, this is a film that reeks of reshoots and rewrites, probably undertaken while the film was actually in production.

I liked all of the cast immensely, with the exception of Rob Corddry as Lou, the aforementioned titamaboob. He's just too obnoxious to care about like you're supposed to, and I'd sooner have seen more of Clark Duke as Jacob, who's pretty much one of the best young comic actors around, even if he doesn't get to show it here. But on the whole, Hot Tub Time Machine was a film I really wanted to love. Instead, I only liked it, and it disappoints only so far as a film with title can. There are still a lot of laughs to be had before a schmaltzy and tacked-on ending, but the crossover element with the more successful film, The Hangover, pretty much actively prevents any chance of the film being as timeless as the likes of Back to the Future. Unless you really want to see this one, watch the older film again and this time, notice that Thomas F. Wilson is the best thing about the whole trilogy as various Biffs, and that's saying a lot.

On a different plane entirely, Centurion finds a bunch of very physically capable blokes running a lot. Set in the year 117AD, the Roman empire determines that their legions must press north and finally conquer all of Britain. The Ninth Legion comes up against a devastating attack by the native Picts, leaving nine soldiers to try and rescue their captured general deep behind enemy lines. They become fugitives from the deadly Etain, a mute Pict warrior woman whose keen instincts and ineffable determination make her unstoppable as a tracker.

History tells us that the Ninth Legion disappeared without trace, and this is Neil Marshall's interpretation of where the hell they got to. In a true invocation of that "The More Things Change..." trope, the Ninth are framed with the group dynamic of a bunch of squaddies. That makes the banter on offer quite reminiscent of Marshall's Dog Soldiers, and he gleefully places a group of very tough men against a menace that trumps them completely. While it's not derivative, Marshall doesn't exactly revolutionise the period drama except to make it more grisly and violent than most others. I've heard it put best by Simon Mayo- "insert tab A into slot B, but tab A is always a great big sword and slot B is the other person".
It never feels as routine as it actually is though- it's tremendously adrenalised and pacey. Moreover, it's buoyed by its performances. Marshall's stroke of genius here is The Magnificent Seven approach, casting great actors like Michael Fassbender, Dominic West, David Morrissey, Noel Clarke and Liam Cunningham in an ensemble, and only really brings Fassbender forward more than the others. That's probably because Fassbender is a great actor who's applying his talents outside of the traditional BAFTA fare of British film, making great appearances in Inglourious Basterds, Eden Lake and now this. More impressive though is Olga Kurylenko as Etain, giving a performance that's as nuanced as you can get when your character's tongue has been cut out and the full extent of your vocal performance is grunting and screaming bloody murder as you wipe out a bunch of soldiers.

Centurion is a satisfying historical action thriller that is probably Neil Marshall's most handsome film- it looks better than the other historical epic in cinemas, Clash of the Titans, and was undoubtedly made for a much lower budget. There's a great cast and a nice bit of historical speculation without ever selling the film as "the truth behind the legend" like so many other films of its type- more on Ridley Scott's Robin Hood at the end of the week. All I need to say about how the film engages its audience is that I was absolutely shattered before seeing a late screening of Centurion, and worried I'd end up falling asleep. I was rapt for all of its 97 minutes, and found it to be a rock solid action film that showcases some of the best of British talent.
If you've seen Hot Tub Time Machine or Centurion, or you're just a manly man who can name many much manlier films than these because you're a man, why not comment below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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