War is a nasty business but a fertile ground for Hollywood. Vietnam has been like catnip to directors keen to highlight the horrors of war whilst incorporating crowd pleasing pyrotechnics, a groovy 60’s soundtrack and casual racism. You would think that you wouldn’t get many laughs from the meaningless deaths of thousands of naïve soldiers and innocent civilians but you underestimate the power of the silver screen. Like the philosophy behind the US government’s misguided crusade against communism which plunged Laos into civil war when the US decided to use it as a strategic base to repel infiltrating North Vietnamese forces , sometimes as a director, you’ve got to break a few grisly eggs to make a laughter omelette.
The movie itself is based on Christopher Robbins’ inside story about the secret CIA funded airline “Air America” which at its peak had the biggest air fleet in the world and ran high risk logistical missions out of Laos in support of the war against the Commies. Staffed by hell-raisers and trouble-junkies that didn’t fit into civilised society their motto “Anything, Anytime, Anywhere” soon referred to more than the shipping humanitarian cargo for the war effort.
Robert Downey Jnr plays Billy Covington one such wide-eyed loose cannon, lured to Laos on the promise of exotic adventure and steady work after losing his job back in the US. He teams up with wily vet Gene Ryack (Mel Gibson) who takes him under his wing and opens his eyes to the clusterf*ck unfurling before them. Turns out the Air America boys are complicit in a CIA backed heroin smuggling operation financing the local anti-Communist warlord’s private army. But that’s OK ‘cos they’re the good guys.
Much like the US government’s criteria regarding entering foreign conflicts, here at EHHQ we like to bend the rules. It would have been churlish to exclude a film awash with helicopters on a trifling matter such as a lack of a decent explosion or pretty much any pyrotechnics whatsoever. Wait come back!
When his landing gear fails on a routine delivery, Downey crash lands his cargo plane in a remote Japanese airstrip. Gibson is in the vicinity and hovers down in an UH-1H Huey in an attempt to extract him from the gook-infested jungle. The commotion enables “hostiles” to pin-point their location and they start to strafe the chopper with bullets. A shot penetrates the gearbox and the loss of oil pressure proves too much and the chopper goes down quicker then Paris Hilton in a hotel lift.
“I crash better then anyone I know” Gibson reassures us
The bullet riddled chopper smashes through the tree line losing tail and rotors and comes to rest horizontally in the bows of a tree. There is corny exchange of action comedy banter between the two about who is going to jump down first ending with both of them jumping a good 100ft down to the ground without so much as a twisted ankle. Predictably as soon as they are clear of the landing zone the rest of the wreckage crashes down from the tree onto the jungle floor.
Director Roger Spottiswoode graces us with beautifully shot film (director of photography Roger Deakins could make a ninety minute montage of turds look like 2001:A Space Odyssey) chock full of airplanes and countless helicopters and even has a number of expensive looking explosions scattered at important points in the film. Despite this elaborate and drawn out set piece he drops the ball big time when it comes to bringing these two action staples together. There were high level talks within the team as to whether this film could even be included in these hallowed pages due to its lack of bona fide chopper fireball. I think there is enough smoke, sparks and damage to the chopper to justify it. But only just.
Exploding helicopter innovation
I haven’t seen any type of motorised transport wedged in a tree since the Jurassic Park jeep incident. I pretty sure this is a helicopter first.
Do passengers survive?
Yes, going by the principle that leading men rarely if ever come a cropper in a chopper, both Gibson and Downey jump down and away from the falling wreckage and live to wisecrack another day.
For ostensibly a light hearted action comedy there is a surprising amount of social and political commentary hidden in the typical high octane japery. Yes, its fairly superficial stuff (more M*A*S*H then All The President’s Men) but kudos to scriptwriter John Eskow for including as much pinko-loving anti war propaganda as the studios would allow.
There are some nice turns by go-to oriental stalwart Bert Kwouk as the crooked Laotian warlord General Lu Soong and a pre Scrubs Ken Jenkins is entertaining as hard ass Major Donald Lemond who tries to make a patsy out of Downey.
The film has been universally panned by all and sundry but I quite enjoyed it.
Spottiswoode had the perfect opportunity to lay a big explosion on us when the cockpit hits the ground but he bottles it. Perhaps he had blown the budget on coke and hookers for Downey’s trailer. Inexcusable.
Also nothing much has the appearance of 1969. It looks far too contemporary. What has the man got against long hair and sideburns?
“I’ll kick your whirlybird ass you little airborne piece of sh*t”
Sean Connery and Kevin Costner were originally pencilled in for the roles of Gibson and Downey but proved too expensive. Costner would struggle to get a paper round these days. In fact his biggest audience in the last 10 years was at Whitney Houston's funeral.
Michael Douglas is Pete Garrison, a been-there-done-that Secret Service vet who once “took a bullet” for Reagan and is now tasked with protecting President Ballatine (David Rasche) from a multitude of nutcases who see the US president as The Great Satan. As Douglas insists that all his films must include gratuitous sex scenes his character ends up having an affair with the First Lady (Kim Basinger) and this leads to him being manipulated and framed for an assassination attempt by an ex-KGB “mole” from within the service.
The protector then becomes the quarry as he has to prove his innocence by finding the rogue agent whilst being pursued by squinty eyed protégé David Breckinridge (Kiefer Sutherland) who is letting a personal beef cloud his judgement. Think of it as a poor man’s The Fugitive meeting a poor man’s 24.
Director Clark Johnson has impeccable small screen credentials having been at the helm on Homicide, The Shield and The Wire but he is sadly let down by a script with more holes then a slice of Emmental. No amount of obtuse camera angles and kinetic direction can hide the confused plot (Sutherland starts hating Douglas for having slept with his wife but just forgets this fact and becomes his best friend again when he is on the run), implausible behaviour (right after the President has been attacked by machine-gun welding maniacs the First Lady strolls unprotected into the middle of the shoot out and is captured) and poorly fleshed out characters (Eva Longoria’s rookie Jill Marin could have been played with as much gusto by a Topshop mannequin).
Despite a couple of passable performances by Douglas and Sutherland the film is a major disappointment. When the mole is uncovered the results are about as thrilling as a rainy weekend in Margate.
I have reviewed many turkeys which have been redeemed (at least in part) by a decent helicopter explosion. Here we get the double kick in the balls that are an underwhelming film combined with a lacklustre chopper fireball.
El Presidente is at Camp David pressing flesh with foreign dignitaries and arrives in style in the huge VH -3D Sea King presidential chopper (which is excitingly named Marine One). As it leaves Camp David we see a panoramic shot of it in the distance and without any warning or preamble a missile snakes up from the tree line and hits the chopper. It seems to explode in slow motion and breaks into two. We do not see anything but the briefest of close ups on impact and we do not see the wreckage hit the floor. The whole thing is over in a flash.
This a spectacularly poor effort with not only a bodged explosion rendered from a distance in disappointingly obvious CGI but with a confusing preamble which makes it feel like the scene was stitched in at the wrong point in the movie.
Exploding helicopter innovation
First time Marine One has ever been destroyed? I’ll be honest I’m guessing here. I think we'll consider this particular explosion an unnovation.
Do passengers survive?
We don’t know for sure but seeing as no major characters are on board no doubt they died a fiery and unpleasant death.
Without doubt Michael Douglas has the finest head of hair in the Secret Service. Period.
It feels as they must have cut a key scene out in the preamble to the downing of Marine One. Perhaps in a misguided attempt to give added gravitas to the explosion, the lack of exposition only adds to the general confusion and half-arsed nature of the story.
David Breckinridge: “Pete Garrison was my best friend. Until he slept with my wife.”
Apparently George Nolfi’s script had done the rounds in Hollywood before being green lit and distributed in 2006. This might go some way to explaining the use of Russian baddies. Sooooooo 80’s.
There is nothing more undignified and upsetting than seeing a middle aged man up on stage in leather trousers and hair dye desperately clinging to the faintest strands of youth with half arsed new music that is limper than a three week old stick of celery. Let's face it, by definition, pop music is a young man's game. Your creative juices are normally on the wane when you turn the wrong side of 30 and the rigours of touring and promotion mean that musicians need to have youthful levels of energy and enthusiasm or access to massive amounts of quality drugs to last the course.
For every artist who has managed to buck the trend of being middle aged and creatively bankrupt (Bjork) there are twenty who are a depressing reminder of their former glories. (Morrissey, Prince, Jagger, Dylan, McCartney etc). They still do big money concert tours for fans that are prepared to pay top dollar for the old stuff and willing to put up with one of the most deflating phrases you'll hear from an established act:
"Here’s one from the new album".
The latest in the long running series of quality music documentaries on BBC4 comes the fascinating Still Bill by filmmakers Damani Baker and Alex Vlack who achieved the real coup of being granted access to the inner sanctum of reclusive legend Bill Withers who called time on his music career before needing to invest in the Just For Men.
If you are not a lover of soul music you would be forgiven for thinking he had popped his clogs long ago as he is rarely seen at awards ceremonies, barely gives interviews and hasn't released an album since 1985. Fact is Withers has always been an outsider. Whether it was being picked on and bullied at school for his pronounced stutter, joining the music industry at the ripe old age of 32, rejecting record company bullshit when it would have been easier to tow the line and bowing out of music at 45 to concentrate on his family he has always ploughed his own furrow.
These days we look at X Factor and see nobodies turning into superstars quicker then it takes to say "inferior cover version" but things really weren't that different in 1971. Withers was making aircraft toilets for 747s one month and the next he was on the Johnny Carson show. Not many people play their first live gig to 5000 people.
"...Couldn't get any women earning $3 dollars an hour. You sure do get better looking when you get a hit record"
Withers had a pretty good run through the 70's making solid albums with the high point being Still Bill with the triple whammy of Use Me, Who is He (And What is He To You), and Lean on Me. Commercial returns diminished toward the late 70's and early 80's with legal disputes and management interference stifling his creativity. He scoffs at the suits who advised he should cover Elvis' In The Ghetto
"I call 'em Blacksperts. White guys who are experts on black people"
He readily admits he wasn't good at the fame game wearily acknowledging that it "kicked his ass". There is a terrible clip of Withers on Top Of The Pops in the 80's wearing a rugby shirt with two plastic looking backing dancers mugging his way through a performance that sums up the latter day dilution of his soulful brand of "realness".
Since quitting the music business Withers has shunned the limelight and concentrated on his family with wife Marcia (who he met at a Gil Scott Heron gig- she didn't know who he was) law student son Todd and aspiring singer Kori. His wife admits Withers has no problem showing his emotions.
"He can express what he is feeling, Sensitive but tough"
He certainly doesn't sugar-coat reality, not even for his daughter, who has ended up on the painful side of his honesty when criticised for her early songwriting forays.
"Its fine to be wonderful but you got to pass through alright. Take a look around. Might be the furthest you get."
Throughout the documentary he is disarmingly frank. He gives short shrift to the notion of celebrity and feels it is
"remiss to give so much attention to performers and athletes, when so many people more deserving get so little respect"
When he goes back to his hometown of Slabfork, West Virgnia a sleepy, backwater, coalmining town that growing up had the usual small minded tensions, he muses that the racism back then was short-sighted as
"After a days work in the coalmines everybody is black anyway"
When he is set up in a manufactured interview with Tavis Smiley he is quick to stomp on lazy criticism of modern artists "selling out".
“I’m not crazy about that word. We’re all entrepreneurs. To me, I don’t care whether you own a furniture store or whatever, the best sign you can put up is ‘sold out.’
So, the million dollar question: What is stopping him making another album? This is where he takes a turn for the coy. At first he is just dismissive and says that he has other priorities in his life. Then as we delve a bit deeper we see he’s insecure about performing admitting
"It would be tough to go back out...I need...show-off steroids”.
Then we get to the nub of it.
"If I was completely honest with myself, I’m probably a little manic depressive. That’s why I might write some songs that might reach somebody else’s emotions, because I have my own.’
His daughter confides that he does have creative peaks and troughs conducive with the illness
“When he wants to do something, he’s just obsessed. He’s all in, up at 2 o’clock in the morning, not eating, not sleeping.”
I got the feeling he would love to perform more but he lacks the motivation and is probably fearful that he would be unable to reach his former glories. It is a real shame as he is at his most animated and alive when he is joined in the studio (which earlier he says he doesn't know how to operate) by Raul Midon as they work on the cracking Latin flavoured Mi Amigo Cubano. It remains unreleased.
The most dramatic moments of the movie involve Withers breaking down in tears when he hears his daughter performs a jazzy ballad, Blue Blues, in what seems a moment of self realisation and again when he cries after listening to a group of stuttering kids perform a song for him. Having gone through the same struggles growing up as they did it all becomes too much.
"You've reminded me of a lot of things I've forgotten"
All in all a fascinating documentary about an enduring talent interspersed with the songs that formed the legacy. A no nonsense, humble, honest, self-effacing and complex artist. They really don't make them like this anymore.
When a wedding invite plops down on your doormat most men expect nothing more from the occasion other than some free vino, a cheesy disco and if they are very lucky a bunk up with a willing bridesmaid. Accidental director Ian Palmer got more then he bargained for after being asked to film an Irish gypsy wedding in 1997. He got sucked in to the clandestine life of bareknuckle boxing.
Taking an eye-watering 12 yrs to make Palmer's documentary centres on the bitter feuds that linger for generations amongst the travelling community in England and Ireland whose "beefs" are not settled by strongly worded letters to their MP but by old fashioned fists and cojones.
The Quinn-McDonaghs and their cousins the Joyces are two such families that despite being related don't follow the maxim that blood is thicker than water. Their bad blood stretches back some 50 years although no one can really remember what started the hostilities. Over the course of Palmer's 12 years filming he was gradually let in to this hidden world and documented over a two dozen bareknuckle fights between the two warring familes often occuring in a quiet country lanes or disused car parks. They are not for the feint hearted.
James Quinn was 24 when he had his first fight after being called out by Paddy Joyce, who is described by his peers as "not the full shilling". Stripped to the waste and covered in tattoos they meet in a quiet Dundalk back road with only a few bystanders milling around (no family is allowed at he fight to prevent riots) and a "neutral" referee is emplyed to ensure there is "fair play" i.e no biting, kicking or gouging.
James has been in training and is a handy if reluctant boxer. It is quickly apparent there is only going to be one winner. Paddy is floored 6 or 7 times in a flurry of heavy hitting emerging with a face the colour and consistency of a squashed tomato. The referee asks
"You had enough Paddy?"
Matches are only stopped when one fighter submits to the other. It is a shame that his boxing skills don't match his bravery as Paddy recieves a gruesome and undignified beatdown until the penny drops and he calls it quits. James collects his winnings from the back of a transit van, £19000 in total, and returns to his clan a triumphant hero, worryingly decribing the fight as
"like beating a child"
This isn't the end of it though. Bizarrely, the two families subsequently trade insults via videotape with riduclous taunts that resemble WWE wrestling filtered through Father Ted. Head man and self proclaimed King Of The Travellers "Big" Joe Joyce picks up his younger brother's baton. He looks like a distant nastier cousin to Father Ted's randy milkman Pat Mustard with his pornstar's moustache and hairy chest. You wouldn't want to meet him down a dark alley though.
" Ya baldy bollocks"
is one of more amusing bon mots directed towards James and he calls the rest of the Quinn's "murderers". It transpires that in 1992 during a pub brawl in London one of the Quinn-McDonaghs, "Curly Paddy", killed a Joyce and went down for manslaughter. It reignited the decades old feud and gave them all another reason to beat the shit out of each other.
Despite saying he would never box again James Joyce is drawn into another fight with Davy Nevin another clan who apparently are in dispute with the Joyces. It makes me start to think that all this fighting really just boils down to money. James openly admits that he just
"needed some quick cash"
This time the purse is £60000 and is fought in a farmhouse courtyard. The director is stopped from filiming as one of the judges is out on bail and has to cobble something together from some grainy video nasty footage that another punter has taken. It goes on for a gruesome 2hrs with James emerging bloodied but victorious. Back at the family home the celebration is tempered by the reaction from the wives who are reluctant to be interviewed but confide that the fighting is destructive and
"goes too deep...children growing up in that life"
The women are dead against the fighting but in a male dominated family unit, powerless to prevent it. Conspicously none of the carnage is shielded from the kids who watch all the fights and post match are all outside with their shirts off shadow-boxing, depressing Mini-Mes of their fathers, and so the cycle continues.
For the finale James' brother Michael has a rematch with "Big" Paul Joyce. Nine years before James was a rather out of shape rosy cheekd youngster forced into fighting his cousin with the match ended in an undignified manner with him being disqalified for biting. Now he had transformed himself into a tattooed testosteroned monster with the neck of a rhino and a the temprement of pitbull. For a purse of £120000 he was taking things seriously this time.
I had to laugh when I saw shots of the families counting piles of potentially ill gotten money for an illegal fight surrounded by potraits of the Pope and the Virgin Mary. Catholicism is anything if not enterprising. Despite the build up and the police helicopter hovering overhead the fight is unispiring and ends in a draw with "pride" supposedly intact on both sides.
As much as the travellers bang about upholding their names and their honour, big money can be made on fights and it is undoubtably this that drives the brutality on. Whilst a laudable, interesting and compelling documentary which entertains in typically car crash fashion we don't really get an insight into the lives of the particpants away from the fighting. Perhaps this is genuinely all they do all day but their general place on the margins of society barely commented on. How do travlellers with no fixed income come up with the £60000 they need to bet on their fighters? Sometimes its best not to ask too many questions.
If after watching the documentary you feel compelled to take up bareknuckle boxing at the weekend, perhaps after your trip to Ikea, Big Joe offers up some handy tips.
"Steep your hand in petrol for 20 mins a day...it'll make you hands feel like rocks. When I was fighting I left 'em with a face like a butchers block"
I wonder if I can get the same effect from dipping my hands in balsamic salad dressing. True fighters adapt to their environment. I'm sure Big Joe would approve.
An interesting interview with the director can be found here
For UK residents the whole thing can be watched in iPlayer for the foreseeable future