Movie reviews: Den of Thieves, Journey's End, Roman J Israel Esq.
Den of Thieves (15A, 140mins) ***
Journey's End (12A, 108mins) ***
Roman J Israel Esq. (12A, 123mins) ***
Ever since Michael Mann released Heat back in the mid-1990s, other film-makers have been copying it. It's the best thing Mann ever did, and its glossy tale of noodly thieves and obsessive cops doing battle with semi-automatic weapons on LA's sun-soaked streets seemed thrillingly original. Not now it doesn't, for 'paying homage' usually means ripping off, and Den of Thieves doesn't even bother to conceal its imitation. It's alright, as far as these heist thrillers go, and has some pretty decent moments, particularly a climactic shoot-up on a traffic-clogged freeway. But it does nothing new, and never tries to.
Like Heat, Den of Thieves begins with a botched hold-up. When a gang of salty dudes led by an ex-marine called Ray Merriman (Pablo Schreiber) hold up an armoured car, one of his crew gets jumpy and opens fire, resulting in a bloodbath. Enter 'Big Nick' O'Brien (Gerard Butler), an unconventional undercover cop who's been tracking Merriman and co, and now vows to bring them down.
It's competent enough, but depressingly familiar stuff. Ray even has a code of honour, like Robert De Niro's character in Heat, and as for 'Big Nick', he's an amalgam of clichés from any number of trashy crime pictures, conflated into a pantomime cop by Butler's shameless overacting.
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When you consider what a big noise it was, the centenary of World War I has produced remarkably few commemorative dramas, and no great ones. Saul Dibb's Journey's End breaks no new ground, but does offer an insight into how intensely that unfortunate generation of young men suffered. It's based on a 1928 play by RC Sheriff, and is set in a British trench at the height of the 1918 German Spring Offensive.
Fresh-faced British Army Lieutenant Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) is keen to get to the front line and what he imagines will be the "frightfully exciting" experience of war. He's also looking forward to meeting Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin), an old mentor of his at public school who's now become a hero. But when he gets to the trenches, he finds Stanhope a changed man, drawn, haggard and addicted to alcohol. He's traumatised by years of action, and Raleigh is about to find out what combat's really like when the unit is ordered to storm the grimly fortified German lines.
A fine ensemble cast display various shades of bravery and suffering. The effortlessly versatile Paul Bettany is very good as Lieutenant Osborne, an older, avuncular officer who retains a reassuring veneer of icy calm, and I liked Toby Jones' working-class cook, who distracts himself from impending doom by pretending his grisly meals are haute cuisine. Dibb does a solid job overall, but the film works best when he abandons tracking shots along the trenches and concentrates on the doomed men huddled underground bracing themselves for what's to come.
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A muddled film bolstered by a big performance, Roman J Israel Esq. stars Denzel Washington as a backroom lawyer who's thrust into the spotlight with disastrous consequences.
Roman Israel has worked for 30 years with a campaigning African American barrister: he's a whiz at the law and has a photographic memory, but is not so great with people and may be on the autism spectrum. When his partner has a heart attack and dies, Roman faces redundancy until he's recruited by a slick defence lawyer called George Pierce (Colin Farrell), who recognises his talents.
But when Roman reaches the cells and courtrooms, his unsatisfactory encounters with cops and defendants lead to all sorts of trouble. Washington's Israel is a compelling creation, a heavyset man with unshakable principles who dresses like it's still the mid-1970s and has politics to match. A fine film could have been built around him, but Dan Gilroy's screenplay veers off in 10 directions at once after a promising start, and tells its story clumsily.