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Heavy-handed film with top cast fails to come together


Out of the furnace Drama: Starring Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker, Sam Shepard. Director: Scott Cooper. Cert 15A

WELL, one certainly can't accuse actor-turned-director Scott Cooper's follow-up to the charming Crazy Heart of lacking firepower on the acting front. All the male leads can ramp up the intensity when required, so the question is: has Cooper crafted a vehicle to allow them to bring their best game to the project? The answer, alas, is not really.

Shot in 33 days in the decaying former industrial heartland of rural Pennsylvania, the look of Out of the Furnace evokes Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter, with smoke billowing from steel mills and hardened, tough men occasionally heading out to the woods to, well, hunt deer. One gets the sense too that just as the Cimino movie painted a picture of America struggling to cope with the effects of Vietnam, here Cooper is trying to do the same with regard to Iraq, only he doesn't really hit the mark.

The central character is Russell Baze (Christian Bale), a steelworker caring for his dying father and trying to make sure his younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) stays on the straight and narrow after returning from another tour in Iraq. The latter has fallen into debt to local crime boss John Petty (Willem Dafoe) who, in turn, is terrorised by the truly monstrous Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a meth-smoking hillbilly psychopath who runs brutal bare-knuckle boxing bouts.

Russell's life takes a turn for the worse when a fatal car crash sees him serve a jail sentence, returning to find that his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana, in a part which barely exists at all) has moved in with the local police chief (Forest Whitaker, who's badly under-used here) and Rodney has become involved in fighting for DeGroat. With all those parts in line, it wouldn't take a genius to figure out that we're set up for a violent showdown between Russell and DeGroat and, in the manner of a classic Western, that's exactly what happens.


With all that talent on board and a fabulous, down-at-heel feel to the film, something just doesn't quite gel with Out of the Furnace. Bale is excellent as the stoic, determined Russell and Harrelson goes at his part with a clear relish, but somehow the various parts just don't mesh the way they should. The nods to The Deer Hunter actually become quite ludicrous at one point, and the 2008 setting as Obama's first campaign reaches its climax reinforces a sense of heavy-handedness which pervades throughout and ultimately sinks the movie. HHIII

Lone Survivor Action: Starring Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Eric Bana, Ali Suliman. Director: Peter Berg. Cert 15A

THE true story of a 2005 US Navy SEALS operation in Afghanistan that went badly wrong is the subject of Peter (The Kingdom and Battleship) Berg's latest film.

What we have here is a "mission goes pear-shaped" movie after the fashion of Black Hawk Down as a four-man reconnaissance team drop into Taliban-held territory in order to kill or capture a senior al-Qaeda figure, are compromised when they come upon a trio of goatherds and have to make a decision that will leave them fighting for their lives.

The central battle sequence is one of the most visceral and breathtaking ever put on screen. It truly is a staggering achievement and, even if at times the film can drift into gung-ho territory (to the extent that Berg opens with scenes of actual Navy SEAL training courses), that 40 minutes or so more than makes up for any minor shortcomings. HHHII

The Armstrong Lie Documentary: Featuring Lance Armstrong. Director: Alex Gibney. Cert General

BACK in 2009, Oscar-winning documentary-maker Alex Gibney (Mea Maxima Culpa/Wikileaks: We Steal Secrets) set out to follow seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong as he prepared for another tilt at the gruelling race. Alas, Armstrong finished third, and the film was shelved until persistent stories and allegations about serial doping led to that interview on Oprah, during which he admitted he had been taking drugs.

Proving that hell hath no fury like a documentary-maker scorned and lied to, Gibney has followed up on the story with interviews merged with footage from the 2009 project and newsreel clips. What emerges is a portrait of a man who, while being extremely, almost psychopathically determined, was quite capable of bullying team-mates and destroying their lives in his pursuit of personal glory. And as a snapshot of a sport riddled with cheating and drug-taking for decades, The Armstrong Lie takes some beating. HHHHI

Free Fall Drama: Starring Hanno Koffler, Max Riemelt, Katharina Schuttler, Oliver Brocker, Stephanie Schonfeld. Director: Stephan Lacant. Cert 15A

HAILED as 'Germany's Brokeback Mountain', while this movie does bear certain similarities to Ang Lee's film, it's a lot less subtle and nuanced. The story focuses on Marc (Hanno Koffler), a police cadet whose girlfriend (Katharina Schuttler) is expecting their first child when, on a weekend course at the police academy, he encounters the charismatic Kay (Max Riemelt). Kay's pursuit of Marc leads to the pair having a sexual relationship that impacts not only on the former's life but on his work within the police force.

Extremely well-acted and well-intentioned, Free Fall does at times come across as being a tad too wishy-washy for its own good. HHHII