Jaws: The Revenge (1987)

“I need a couple of boats fast and someone who can kill a shark” Hoagie

Following on from the events of Jaws and Jaws 2 (but pretty much writing Jaws 3D out of history) Jaws: The Revenge once again sees the Brody family having significant shark trouble. I normally start my blog posts with a brief synopsis of the plot, but frankly so utterly insane is the story here that it really warrants much closer attention. The fourth instalment in the Jaws franchise is infamous to such a degree that even those who have never actually seen it will have heard about it’s legendary awfulness. It has appeared in numerous lists of the worst films of all time, received seven nominations for the Golden Raspberry Awards and remains one of the few films to have a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Adding to the mythos surrounding the film is the fact that Caine was unable to collect his first Oscar due to a clash with filming his scenes, his famous quote “I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built and it is terrific” and the many jokes that have stemmed from the film’s ‘this time it’s personal’ tag line including one seen in Back to the Future Part II.

All of which begs the question, can it really be THAT bad. The answer manages to simultaneously be yes and no. The plot, as hinted at already, is genuinely insane. We join the film as Ellen Brody, widow of Chief Brody from the first two films in the franchise, is preparing for Christmas with her son Sean (the film is actually very Christmassy in its first half, but skilfully avoids a Die Hard style ‘Christmas film or not’ debate by being so rubbish that nobody cares). It is again worth mentioning that while both Brody sons appear in Jaws 3D there is no mention of the events of that movie and both have entirely different lives so it is fair to say that it has been written out of history in the minds of the makers of The Revenge, although so tedious is that entry that it’s also just possible that they have forgotten about it. For this instalment Sean has followed in his father’s footsteps and is working as Deputy for the Amity Police Department. Every second of the opening scenes of the film are there just to emphasise what a great guy Sean is. We see him cooking with his mother before joining a phone conversation with his brother and niece. A Christmas shopping excursion with his mum and fiancĂ© is cut short by his commitment to his work as he drops in at the station to check everything is ok. From that we get to see he enjoys a good relationship with the nice old lady who answers the phones before he heads off on a job and engages with the locals who clearly all think he is great. It is a scriptwriters desperate attempt to make you care about a character who is about to get eaten by a shark in the first ten minutes and sadly for them it doesn’t work.

The shark attack on Sean and the giant leaps of imagination it asks the audience to take is really the point at which the story goes from just being quite bad to being utterly insane. Ellen is convinced that the attack wasn’t an accident and was a calculated attempt to gain revenge on the Brody family as it turns out she also blames her husbands fatal heart attack on the stress and fear caused by the previous shark attacks he was involved in (remember that all those sharks were killed so this is a different shark entirely who apparently knows all about those events and her families connection with them). Her other son Mike returns from the Bahamas where he is working as a marine biologist for the funeral and quite understandably suggests that her theory is absolutely mental. Of course the film goes on to show that she was absolutely correct, which takes us back to the death of Sean and the ludicrousness of what it suggests. Ignoring for a second the likelihood of a shark being able to specifically pinpoint members of one family in order to exact revenge there are many other questions asked by this initial attack. Sean heads out onto the water to try and remove a log that has become entangled in a marker buoy. Now it is I suppose possible that this is just a coincidence and the shark was there just waiting for its opportunity to pounce on the nearest Brody, but the film definitely suggests that the shark has set a trap to lure out its prey. Now that would be quite hard to believe if all it consisted of was sticking a log on a buoy, but stretches credulity far beyond breaking point given the other elements that have to fall into place to get Sean out there. When the call handler informs him of the need for somebody to go out and clear the buoy he understandably asks what the coastguard are doing. It turns out they have been called out on an unspecified emergency so are unavailable. Sean then asks why his colleagues who are actually supposed to be on duty and not Christmas shopping like he is can’t go only to be told that they are at a local farm investigating a problem with cow tipping. Now this is either another almighty coincidence or the filmmakers really missed a trick by not including a scene of the shark making a fake phone call to the coastguards (ideally with phony french accent) and then making its way to a farm and casually tipping over some cows in order to ensure it would have to be Sean who headed out to sea.

Sadly instead of this opportunity for comedy gold we get lots of scenes of Ellen standing on her own staring out to sea in grief. Mike manages with some help and support from his wife and daughter to persuade her to come back to the Bahamas with them. Ellen in turn pleads with Mike to quit his job and find something that won’t require him to spend the majority of his time in the sea. He understandably refuses as he isn’t prepared to sacrifice his career based on the ravings of a mad woman (Ellen Brody is very much the Quincy of the film as nobody will ever listen to her theories) and quite rightly points out that great white sharks can’t survive in the warm water he swims in so it would be absolutely impossible for it to come anywhere near him. It’s a very sound and logical argument, but of course logic and Jaws: The Revenge have absolutely no connection and somehow the shark manages to make its way to the Bahamas in just three days. There really aren’t that many films that actively point out the impossibility of its story within the dialogue only to then totally ignore that fact in the next couple of scenes. Sure enough having somehow worked out that they were all heading to the Bahamas, presumably from an intricate spy network the shark has working on land for him, he then finds Mike and attacks the boat he is working on. Incredibly Mike doesn’t lose his mind at the realisation that his mum’s insane theories are correct and instead needs very little persuasion from his colleague Jake to try and study the shark instead.

The reemergence of the shark along with his fairly regular attempts to eat Mike do eventually start to cause him a bit of stress as he starts to have nightmares and struggles to keep the secret from his family. From this point on Mike really only exhibits two emotions, which are either terrified or horny and occasionally both at the same time. Fortunately this dovetails quite nicely with his wife who was either angry or horny even before she knew anything about the shark. There really is a remarkable amount of either sex or talking about sex in the movie for no apparent reason at all. The lust in the air eventually reaches Ellen who falls for Caine’s pilot Hoagie and as a consequence immediately drops her mad theory about a vengeful shark. It’s possible she connects to Hoagie due to the fact that he clearly has some mental issues of his own as exhibited by his entirely reckless behaviour as a pilot. While delivering Mike and the family to the island he has no worries about putting the young Thea Brody on his lap and allowing her to have a go on the controls before ducking and diving the plane endangering the lives of everybody on board. Fortunately everybody thinks this is hilarious rather than downright irresponsible and he soon begins a romance with Ellen that everybody approves of except for Mike who is more bothered about his mum’s new boyfriend than you might expect a man who is being hunted by a super intelligent shark might be.

Unfortunately Ellen’s newly found serenity is shattered as the public gather for the reveal of a piece of artwork commissioned from Mike’s wife Carla (I don’t think I’ve mentioned that she is an artist, but she is and based on what she creates here not a very good one either, but this perhaps isn’t surprising as the only time we see her attempt to work she instead shouts at Mike a bit and then has sex with him in her workshop, which if nothing else is bang in character). While everybody has there attention diverted the shark reappears and Ellen somehow manages to spot it despite it not being clear and her being miles away. Not only that but it is heading for little Thea who is riding a banana with some friends and proving once again the sharks innate ability to sniff out a Brody, even one who definitely wasn’t born when all the events it is supposedly gaining revenge for took place. Fortunately for Thea the sharks aim isn’t quite as good this time and a different random girl is chewed up and spat out instead allowing her to get to the safety of the beach although she is understandably a bit shaken up by the whole thing. The attack on Thea is a good point to mention how remarkably bad the film is at making you care about any of the characters. With the exception of Hoagie who at least has Caine’s charisma going for him when it comes down to a battle between any of the cast of characters and the shark I am firmly on team shark and when that is even the case with the families small child then you know the film has problems.

Mike hears about the attack and races home to check on Thea where he reveals he knew about the shark and everybody justifiably tells him what an arse he has been. Carla is particularly furious and so is presumably just about to wrestle him to the floor and have sex with him again, but before she gets a chance he races off to try and find his mum. Ellen is missing and has taken a boat to try and find the shark. Mike and Jake set off after her and fortunately bump into Hoagie who flies them to the boat, which they reach just as the shark appears. Ellen then enacts her great plan which is…to stand on the boat and look at the shark. It turns out that this may not have been the shrewd tactical masterclass she had imagined and the shark quickly gains the upper hand. She also gives Mike a massive telling off for turning up and putting himself in danger, which is somewhat hypocritical given how ludicrous her behaviour has been. Jake on the other hand has an actual plan, but sadly while putting it into practise he gets eaten by the shark, which is somewhat careless particularly given his plan only half works. That forces Ellen back into action as she drives the boat directly at the shark stabbing it in the head upon which the shark immediately blows up for reasons not fully or even remotely clear. The happy ending is complete as it turns out Jake somehow wasn’t fully eaten by the shark and is actually in pretty good health all considered. The film ends with Ellen flying back home to Amity rather than selling up and getting a flat somewhere landlocked, which would seem like an altogether more sensible plan, but given that Hoagie is flying her home it is entirely possible she was killed in a massive fireball on the way home anyway as he passed over the controls to anybody who just fancied a go on a plane.

So there we have one of the silliest plots ever showcased on the big screen in it’s full glory. It is so far removed from the tense thrills of the original instalment in the franchise that were it not for the fact the film constantly makes an effort to remind you of it you wouldn’t believe there could be any connection. Indeed that’s a problem as The Revenge doesn’t come out well from any comparisons and yet it is determined to leave you in no doubt about its lineage. From the moment that Sean walks into the Amity Police Department and is greeted by a massive wall-filling photo of Roy Scheider as his father we never really get two minutes without it being alluded to. The scene in the film that could most easily be mistaken for being charming sees Thea mimicking the movement of her Dad at the dinner table, which would be lovely if it wasn’t a total lift from the first film of Brody with his son. Paying homage to what has come before is all very well and good, but it doesn’t really work when all it does is remind you how much you wish you were watching that film instead. Which brings us onto the bigger problems of the flashbacks. Scheider was offered the opportunity to reprise his role for the film and in a moment of unquestionable judgement turned the offer down. That clearly didn’t deter the filmmakers from wanting him involved so the film is peppered with flashbacks to him in the first two films seen through the eyes of Ellen. Again this isn’t necessarily a terrible idea, but comes to a ridiculous point in the final battle scene on the boat where Ellen has flashbacks to events in the first two films that she wasn’t present at meaning she is either psychic or has bought the DVDs. It is most likely the first option and she does have some sort of hidden psychic powers as she also has some sort of link with the shark that allows her to sense when it makes it’s first attack on Mike. It won’t come as a surprise to learn that this is never explained or explored further.

In addition to missing Scheider I think it is also fair to say that director Jospeh Sargent doesn’t quite reach the heights Steven Spielberg manages in the first film. Where as Spielberg was able to build the tension to a crescendo Sargent never really manages to get the tension even started. The original Jaws did an incredible job of creating a genuine threat without needing to see too much of the shark and instead relying on atmosphere, brilliant camera work and a genius piece of scoring from John Williams. The Revenge puts the shark front and centre of the action far too often and is significantly less impressive as a result. There are times when it looks fine, but there are plenty of others where it looks like what it is, a big hunk of rubber with some teeth in. Add to that the fact that for some unknown reason it famously roars like a lion and it becomes understandable that ‘Bruce the Shark’ became the first inanimate object to be nominated for the worst actor at the Razzies.

Given everything we have talked about it is perhaps not particularly surprising that the cast are not overly impressive in their performances. Lorraine Gary as Ellen struggles, but then honestly how could she have done anything else given what the script asks of her. Similarly Lance Guest and Karen Young have so little character to work with in Mike and Carla that it’s difficult to be too critical of them. Mario Van Peebles as Jake has it perhaps even tougher as he has all the problems the other actors face, but with the addition of having to deliver everything in a generic Caribbean accent and with dialogue that feels very much like a white writers idea of what a West Indian sounds like. It all makes you even more grateful for those few moments when Caine appears on screen.

I think the first time I saw Jaws: The Revenge (for despite all its problems I have watched it on multiple occasions) may have been the first time I believed Caine had some sort of magical power. This is far from his best work and he can’t salvage the whole thing, but somehow he still manages to be highly entertaining. He makes Hoagie the one character with any sort of charm or charisma and that is entirely through his performance. It is the sheer force of Caine’s personality that achieves this because almost every line that Hoagie delivers is total garbage. We constantly get snippets of anecdotes or jokes, which result in howls of laughter from Ellen and others despite the fact they make almost no sense. That almost doesn’t matter though as there isn’t a single point in this film where Caine throwing his all into telling a terrible joke that doesn’t make sense while wearing a New Years party hat isn’t an entirely welcome distraction from the madness that surrounds it. As a consequence the romantic subplot between Hoagie and Ellen that so often feels unnecessarily tacked on to the main disaster movie plot is actually quite welcome given it brings more of Caine to the screen. Even Caine’s hair manages to be more entertaining than any thing or anybody around him as it reacts to a combination of the heat and getting wet by going all frizzy in a way that is more entertaining than you might imagine. Caine also has unquestionably the best moment of the film as his delivery of the line “aww shit” just as the shark bares down on him from out of nowhere is perfect and makes me laugh out loud every time. It is a moment the film could have learned from as Caine seems able to embrace the films silliness and makes you aware of what a shame it is that he actually has relatively little screen time. As always he makes an impression though and while it is a sign of a good actor to get the most out of strong material it is a sign of an even better actor who can do that and then also improve a script that is in the most part awful. Jaws: The Revenge is one of the best examples of the many times Caine achieves this.

I would love to be able to challenge received opinion about Jaws: The Revenge, but the truth is it really is one of the stupidest films ever made. What I will challenge however is the idea that it is the worst film of all time and that is where my earlier assertion that it is simultaneously as bad and not as bad as is suggested comes from. It is not only not the worst film ever made, but I’d argue not the worst film Caine made and not even the worst film in the Jaws franchise. Give me the choice of sitting down and watching it again right now or watching the frankly tedious Jaws 3D or The Jigsaw Man (as one Caine example) and I’d go for Ellen Brody’s psychic flashbacks every time. Rubbish it may be, but at times it is a slightly entertaining rubbish with a lot of that being down to Caine himself. All it needed was a scene of a shark tipping some cows over and it may even have made it to number two in my personal Jaws rankings.

The Fourth Protocol (1987)

“Acting Head sunshine! And if you ask me you’re acting like a complete arsehole” John Preston

John Preston is a highly accomplished British agent during the height of the Cold War. As he clashes with his newly appointed boss he stumbles across a Russian plot to smuggle the materials to build a nuclear bomb into the country. With time running out Preston must battle a terrifyingly efficient Russian agent while also coping with a desperate power struggle among his own superiors.

Following on from The Whistle Blower we are straight back into the Cold War with this adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s novel. While the two films have similar settings they have very different attitudes about how best to tell their story. While The Whistle Blower went for a more understated narrative that ultimately came down to powerful men trying to cover up the incompetency of other powerful men The Fourth Protocol instead goes for the significantly less subtle threat of nuclear annihilation. Indeed the big difference between the two films is the lack of subtlety in The Fourth Protocol’s story telling and it is that more than anything else which makes it a less accomplished film. Fortunately there is still plenty to enjoy largely thanks to another excellent leading performance from Caine and an outstanding supporting cast full of wonderful acting talent.

Caine is terrific as John Preston and as always is intensely watchable throughout. It’s a role that benefits from his ever present charisma as he stands out as the cheeky chappy, but efficient agent among the stuffed shirts of his superiors. It’s also a role that allows him to go into full brilliant indignant Caine as he becomes increasingly frustrated with the decisions being made from above. His shouty scenes with first Julian Glover and then at the very end of the film with Ian Richardson offer two of the main highlights. It’s hard to imagine anybody out there being able to deliver them with quite the same verve and extracting as much fun from what could otherwise have been quite a dry film. Those louder moments also contrast quite nicely with the quieter scenes of Preston spending time with his son, in which Caine is frankly adorable (although one is a reminder that nothing dates a film like text on an old computer). The Fourth Protocol also confirms Caine’s status as an icon as he somehow manages to look incredibly cool whilst being a middle aged man running around in a turtle-neck sweater and a puffer jacket. It is one of those performances that lifts what could be a very forgettable film into something quite enjoyable, which is fortunate because elsewhere The Fourth Protocol does leave a little to be desired.

I’ve already mentioned the lack of subtlety in the story telling and at times it really is quite alarming particularly with a screenplay adapted from his own novel by Frederick Forsyth. Never is this more evident than in consecutive scenes, neither of which drive the plot in any way, but are specifically placed to make you sympathise with Preston’s character. The first takes place on a tube train as a black woman is accosted by a group of skinhead racists. It’s quite a disturbing scene as the abuse she receives is shown in it’s full unpleasantness until Caine as Preston steps up to the mark and gives the racists a good kicking. It is then immediately followed by a scene of Preston sat at home alone looking at photos of his, we presume deceased, wife with a background of sad twinkly music. All of this is the film’s way of screaming out at the audience about what a good man our hero is. It is also entirely unnecessary as Caine’s innate likability and what we have seen of him up to that point have already achieved everything those scenes set out to do.

The Fourth Protocol is also a film that within it’s story does rely on some remarkable coincidences and at times a convenient amount of stupidity from it’s characters. When Preston is briefly demoted by his new boss (Preston is pretty much the archetypal agent not necessarily going by the book, but getting results) it is very fortunate that he happens to be sent to the exact job that draws him back into the story. That kind of convenient coincidence are often needed in this kind of story, but it is possible to hide them a little better and whether it is the script or director John Mackenzie, who also worked with Caine on The Honorary Consul, that doesn’t happen here. Instead we already know that things are being smuggled into the UK when Preston is sent off to ports and airports and sure enough there is an incident immediately on his arrival.

For all The Fourth Protocol’s problems it is at it’s most bizarre in the scenes shared between Pierce Brosnan and Joanna Cassidy. Brosnan is the KGB agent Valeri Petrofsky assigned the job of assimilating himself into the UK and executing the delivery and detonation of the bomb while Cassidy is Irina Vassilievna the agent who joins him to assemble and arm the device. When they first meet they are very cold towards each other with Irina being especially focused on getting the job done rather than building any sort of personal relationship. They both show themselves to be incredibly accomplished agents, which makes their surprise when it turns out they have each been ordered to kill the other incredibly strange. Every single person who has been aware of the plan has been given a death sentence the moment their usefulness is complete and yet apparently both are stupid enough to not suspect the same may happen to them. It leads to one of the most unconvincing line deliveries in cinema. Irina changes the countdown clock on the bomb from 2 hours to 0 so it will detonate immediately when Petrofsky arms it. He then checks that he has two hours to get away and she responds “…yes….two hours” with so little conviction that even the most gullible of people couldn’t fail to be deeply suspicious.

Most bizarre though is the scene in which Irina assembles the bomb with the help of Petrofsky. It is an incredibly long scene as they first remove all the pieces from their hiding places and then slowly assemble them. It is shot with all the intensity of a sex scene when in reality it shares more with the scenes in The A-Team where the gang would put something together from whatever conveniently left materials they could find. The lengthy scene is almost entirely wordless, but the two share numerous intense periods of eye contact as they work up a nervous sweat. The look they share as Irina inserts a large metal rod into a round hole makes me think that the strange atmosphere created is deliberate, but it is all certainly very odd. It is perhaps made even stranger given that the pair do then end up having sex later, but none of the intensity is given to those scenes. That they end up in bed together at all is slightly strange given that they have barely actually spoken to each other and Irina seems not to like him at all suggesting that they do indeed get really turned on by bomb assembly or she feels it is the least she can do having set the trap to kill him.

Brosnan actually does a very decent job as the villain given he is saddled with most of the weaker elements of the plot and has relatively little dialogue. In addition to his strange scenes with Cassidy there is also a sub-plot, which sees him befriended by his American serviceman neighbour and his beautiful wife. There is a romantic element as she attempts to seduce him after they invite him on a night out, but it isn’t a very successful one and ultimately adds nothing to the story. Given their proximity to his house where the denouement to the story happens I expected them to come back into the story, but that never happened. Instead in the middle of what is supposed to be a taut, dramatic thriller you get a few scenes of them introducing themselves to Valeri, taking him for a drink, her dancing with him, her touching his leg a bit, him turning her down and then we never see them again. It is a totally pointless diversion that fills a bit of time, but not with anything interesting. It’s a shame because Brosnan is very capable and certainly does his best right up to his comical ‘not quite being able to stretch and reach the bombs detonator even though he definitely could reach it easily’ moment.

There is a classy supporting cast working behind Caine that again helps to elevate The Fourth Protocol to a much more watchable level. Ian Richardson is particularly impressive as Preston’s main supporter among his superiors. He is pleasingly charming in his scenes with Caine, but really comes into his own during the scene with Anton Rodgers playing a traitorous politician. He carries a quiet, but very sinister threat that will be very familiar to anybody who has seen him in the BBC’s original series of House of Cards. It is a terrific scene with Rodgers also typically excellent and another example of how it is difficult to imagine any other actor extracting more from the script. Another piece of spot on casting is Julian Glover as the acting head of the agency and Preston’s chief antagonist. The characterisation is more than a little on the nose as he stubbornly refuses to recognise Preston’s usefulness as an agent, but as you would expect from somebody who has filled the role in Bond, Star Wars, Doctor Who and Indiana Jones he plays an excellent baddy. The depth in quality of the cast is further demonstrated by the likes of Michael Gough, Ronald Pickup and Philip Jackson who all take relatively small roles, but add extra authenticity to the action.

Away from the British side of things the casting is perhaps a little more eccentric. As well as Brosnan, Ray McAnally and Ned Beatty also take on roles on the Russian side of things and there are some fairly unsuccessful attempts at Russian accents on show. Most difficult to come to terms with however is Alan North who plays the head of the KGB and it’s a role that is somewhat difficult to take seriously if like me you are most familiar with him thanks to his work on the brilliant Police Squad.

The Fourth Protocol has a number of moments of genuine silliness and a script that is at times unfocused and often lacking any kind of subtlety. It does however have an excellent lead performance from Caine and a strong supporting cast that makes it just enjoyable enough. Definitely the lesser of the two Cold War thrillers Caine led in 1987, but not a total write off either.

The Whistle Blower (1986)

“I never understood about revolutionaries…but I do now” Frank Jones

Bob Jones is a Russian translator working for British Intelligence at GCHQ during the height of the Cold War. He becomes increasingly disenchanted by the paranoid and accusatory atmosphere within the service following the unmasking of a Soviet spy within the organisation. When a colleague dies in questionable circumstances Bob decides to act as a whistle blower, but before he can complete his investigation he dies after an apparent fall or jump from the roof of his apartment block. His war veteran father who Bob had confessed his concerns to is convinced that rather than an accident or suicide his son has been murdered and attempts to break down the walls of secrecy to find justice for Bob.

In the pantheon of Michael Caine films The Whistle Blower isn’t an entry that tends to get a lot of attention. Neither an absolutely outstanding film nor one of his famous failures it seems to have been lost somewhere in the middle ground. That is a shame because it is better than just a middling effort. There is a confidence to its storytelling, which along with a wonderful supporting cast and Caine giving an excellent turn combine to make a very accomplished end product.

The Whistle Blower can be split into two distinct sections. The first introduces us to Bob, played by Nigel Havers and builds the sense of paranoia and corruption in which he finds himself working. The second half follows Bob’s death and his father Frank’s attempts to discover the truth of what happened. Both sections work well and the second half undoubtedly benefits from the time spent establishing the relationship between Bob and his father. That relationship is very well drawn and extremely believable. Frank clearly loves his son very much and is concerned for his wellbeing while also not really being able to understand his motives. The extreme situation Bob finds himself in highlights the generation gap between the two men, but despite their difficulties they clearly hold each other in great affection. As a consequence the emotion felt by Frank after Bob’s death feels very real and adds extra poignancy to moments such as the realisation he had been carrying the book his father had bought him for his birthday when he died.

The time given to the relationship between Bob and Frank is indicative of the overall confidence The Whistle Blower has in it’s story telling. There is a slow building tension that grows through the film. It also has a very clear idea of exactly the story it wants to tell. This is best exemplified by the way the film deals with Bob’s death. A different film would have spent a good chunk of time trying to build the tension by showing Bob’s murderers closing in on him. Instead The Whistle Blower shows you nothing. We are told that Bob is killed and the possible circumstance of the ‘accident,’ but aside from one imagined flashback of him hitting the ground that is all we ever get. The Whistle Blower isn’t interested in the story of exactly how Bob was killed or who physically did the killing. It is interested in what led to the killing, who knew about it and what can be done by a man filled with grief to beat the system that allowed it. The film isn’t prepared to be sidetracked from telling that story and is all the better for it.

The focused storytelling of The Whistle Blower helps to build a very convincing world of paranoia. To compare it to another film covered in this blog, The Jigsaw Man, which also covered Cold War paranoia, it creates a much more convincing world (and is a significantly better film). While The Jigsaw Man played with the more sensational elements of that world with plastic surgery altered double agents expert in martial arts and engaging in regular gunfights, The Whistle Blower is far more grounded. Ultimately The Whistle Blower’s murky world is simply corrupt people covering up the stupidity of others because it is more convenient for them to do so than to deal with the consequences. All of which feels eerily and disturbingly real and far more effective as a consequence.

The claustrophobic nature of the plot comes from the sheer helplessness of Frank. The deeper he goes into the cover-ups and the more information he discovers the harder it becomes for him to do anything significant about it. Again this is made more powerful by the time given to set up Frank’s character before he is really thrown into the action. We know he is a War veteran and at heart an establishment man. He doesn’t understand Bob’s desire to push back against authority and openly chastises him for speaking loosely about work matters. It is then all the more effective when we see his entire world view slowly being shattered as he discovers the ugly truths about what has occurred.

It creates a growing intensity, which comes to a head in a truly brilliant scene between Frank and his old friend Charles, played by Barry Foster. The realisation that his friend was involved in the death of his son is the final crushing blow for him. It is a superbly played scene that builds and builds to an incredible intensity. It is Caine at his best in what is overall an outstanding performance. It is also a slightly different kind of performance from him with a much quieter tone. This isn’t the ‘shouty Caine’, which is often so brilliant, but he has a real subtlety here. He still creates a very likeable character, but instead of his usual brash charm you are drawn to Frank for his quiet honesty.

He is helped by being surrounded by an outstanding supporting cast of British talent. Havers brings a youthful energy to Bob and shared a real chemistry with Caine. James Fox and John Gielgud bring their usual touch of class to the production with Gielgud particularly welcome in a brief, but important role as the entitled fool Sir Adrian Chappell. I’ve mentioned the brilliant scene between Caine and Barry Foster, but it is worth noting again just how wonderful they both are in it. In some ways Foster has the harder side of things as he has to project everything while also playing blind drunk, but he is exceptional. The strength of the cast continues with the likes of Gordon Jackson, Kenneth Colley and Trevor Cooper all taking on smaller roles with typical success and with Simon Langton doing a very capable job behind the camera it is a very polished production.

The Whistle Blower feels somewhat underrated to me. It isn’t perfect and it’s story wasn’t particularly original even in 1986. There is, however a joy in seeing a story well told even if it feels familiar. The Whistle Blower is certainly well told by a cast and crew that is hugely impressive. Well worth seeking out if it has passed you by until now.

Half Moon Street (1986)

“You mean diseases and maniacs? Don’t worry. I’ve found a gynaecologist who does karate” Lauren Slaughter

Lauren Slaughter is a talented research fellow at the Middle Eastern Institute in London. She grows increasingly frustrated as her superiors steal her work and have it published in their name while the meagre pay leaves her barely able to pay her rent in a tiny and run down apartment. After receiving a video anonymously through the post Slaughter joins an escort agency where she meets Lord Bulbeck an international lawyer recently brought in by the government to act as an impartial negotiator between the Arabs and the Israelis. As their relationship develops Slaughter finds herself embroiled in an increasingly dangerous political situation.

Half Moon Street is an odd film. It could be a political drama, an erotic thriller or a romance and it flirts with all three at times, but isn’t ultimately very good at being any of them. Instead it ends up being the sort of made-for-television film that used to appear on Channel 5 at tea time, but with added breasts. The breasts in question belong to Sigourney Weaver who I am generally a big fan of, but she is fighting a losing battle with Half Moon Street. The dialogue she is forced to deliver is at times overwritten, but most often just very silly and certainly not words that any actual human being would speak. To give an example while at a party she actually says to a dignitary, “you’re from Kuwait? I’m a great admirer of your social services.” In addition the film is filled with incredible coincidences that help to move what bit of plot there is forward.

Even stranger is the films relationship with sex. This is a very sanitised version of the sex industry that couldn’t be much further away from the gritty and dark portrayal of the same world in my last entry Mona Lisa. The filmmakers are extremely keen to show that Slaughter is in control of her situation. She turns down sex with some of her clients and seemingly runs into absolutely no issues through her new career until the political element comes into play. Most bizarrely for a film with so much semi-nudity and mostly set within the sex industry there is almost no sex in the film. There is one sex scene in which both characters are completely under the sheets and so all you hear are noises and that is about it. That wouldn’t be so surprising if it wasn’t for the amount of time Weaver finds herself topless throughout the film. It is almost as if it was written into her contract that she wouldn’t perform a sex scene and so the filmmakers decided to try and make up for it by having her semi naked in every other scene. As a consequence there are a ludicrous amount of scenes of her taking a shower or before she has her new income sitting in the bath attempting to get the shower head to work in her grotty London flat. The oddest scene sees her topless on an exercise bike while her client takes photos of her and questions her about classic movies in what passes for erotica in this movie.

Far more of a problem is that the political intrigue in the film is never actually intriguing. Director Bob Swaim attempts to build some tension by including footage on television screens in the background, but unfortunately never really gets round to putting anything interesting in the foreground. We meet Lord Bulbeck and know that he is involved in negotiating for the British Government, but we rarely get any deeper into that situation. Instead the relationship between him and Slaughter is the main focus even if they aren’t on screen together. It is another example of the film being a little bit of everything, romantic or political, but not actually taking the time to be any good at either of them. It also isn’t helped by the fact the ‘villains’ of the piece are so obviously the villains. Who would have thought that the man who just decides to give Slaughter an expensive apartment to live in might have an ulterior motive. While the fact that the only man Slaughter meets and sleeps with who then treats her badly turns out to also be involved helps to eliminate any surprises in the script. There are no twists or turns and the betrayal is so obvious that it draws into question the films constant assertion of what an intelligent and in control woman Slaughter is.

Swaim’s directing is fairly uninspired and coupled with the messy script adapted from an original novel by Paul Theroux it makes for an uninspiring package. I imagine the film would have drifted into even more obscurity than it already has were it not for the two Hollywood stars in leading roles. They both do their best, but they really have very little to work with. Weaver is curiously emotionless at times though I think that is due to the script more than any great fault on her part. Caine does a decent job as Bulbeck, but again there is nothing really for him to get his teeth into. Nothing allows him to really have any fun with the role when what the film really needs is to give him the chance to let his personality really shine through. He has lifted many a flat script in this manner, but Half Moon Street just doesn’t offer him that opportunity. Fortunately Weaver and Caine have pretty good chemistry together although it is again a poor reflection on the script that despite this I still never believed the relationship between their two characters.

The supporting cast don’t really have a great deal to work with either. Ram John Holder, most famous for the UK sitcom Desmond’s, brings a bit of charisma to his role as Slaughter’s friend and Landlord, but is only briefly on screen. Otherwise it is nice to see Nadim Sawalha in his traditional role as the 1980’s go-to British actor to play any Middle-Eastern parts setting the trend that has been continued and is currently filled by Omid Djalili. It is one of the things that firmly places this in the 1980’s along with communicating through VHS tapes, massive spectacles and an opening scene of Weaver jogging through London in a tracksuit that manages to be the most 80s thing ever.

I really didn’t enjoy Half Moon Street. At an hour and a half it isn’t a long film, but it includes so little of any interest that it feels significantly longer. There were times when the dialogue was so bad it angered me and the characterisation is equally poor. Both Caine and Weaver deserve better and there is a reason why the film has drifted largely into obscurity. Go watch Mona Lisa again instead.

Mona Lisa (1986)

“Everyone hates me once in a while” Mortwell

After a seven year stretch in prison George returns home and is given a job driving Simone, a high price call girl, to and from her clients. Their relationship is initially tempestuous, but George begins to fall for her as their relationship softens. When Simone asks George to help her track down a young girl she worked with before escaping her abusive pimp he finds himself increasingly drawn into a seedy and violent world with deadly consequences.

Mona Lisa is a film of incredible contrasts. At times grubby and brutal while at others soft and beautiful. Part neo-noir, part tragic romance and part gangster classic it swings between the different styles with a confidence and subtlety to produce a quite wonderful end product. The very opening scenes establish these contrasts perfectly. We see George making his was along the Thames as the sunrises over London and the syrupy voice of Nat King Cole provides the soundtrack with Mona Lisa. It’s an absolutely beautiful opening shot that then moves on to George attempting to see his daughter and instead being dragged into an explosive argument with her mother. It’s loud, grim and ends with George flinging a full rubbish bin at the closed door and telling the crowds that have been drawn by the commotion to “fuck off.” It is anything but beautiful, but is an immediate window into the contrasting elements of Mona Lisa.

Crucial to Mona Lisa’s ability to balance it’s different styles is Bob Hoskins’ performance as George. This is Hoskins’ second successive appearance in this blog and while he gave a very strong supporting role in Sweet Liberty there is no doubt he is front and centre of Mona Lisa at all times. He responds with an utterly brilliant performance that won him a string of awards and his only Oscar nomination where he missed out to Paul Newman for The Color of Money. George is by no means a classic heroic character. We know he has just spent time in prison and are quickly given evidence of his short temper and initial racist response to being asked to drive around a “black tart.” Yet there is also a softness to Hoskins’ performance that makes it hard not to warm to George. His attempts to forge a relationship with his daughter and his urge to protect Simone hint at his softer nature and his genuine shock at the age of the girls involved in the sex industry indicate a surprising and disarming innocence in the character. Hoskins portrays all these elements beautifully while also convincing as a man who has survived and made a living out of the criminal underbelly in London. Whether it is the sweet and innocent smile he gives when seeing himself in the new clothes bought for him by Simone or the quick and effective violence of rabbit punching a man through the open window of his car Hoskins’ is never anything other than utterly convincing as George. It is a magnificent performance.

Equally on form is Neil Jordan who scripts and directs the film. Once again he balances the disparate elements of the action beautifully ensuring that they all piece together effectively and none seem out of place. He creates a believably seedy environment in which violence is never far from the surface. I’ve seen the film’s tone compared to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, but a more fitting comparison in this blog may be to Caine’s British gangster classic Get Carter. Both films avoid the trap of sensationalising the violence on show. It never lingers and is instead fast, brutal and effective. As a consequence there is a tension that constantly bubbles under the surface and as an audience you are never in any doubt that there is a real and obvious threat to everybody involved. That is never more evident that with the quick attack on George and Simone by her former pimp Anderson and Jordan creates a real horror aesthetic as they attempt to escape in the lift while their predator hunts them down. Where Mona Lisa diverts from Taxi Driver and Get Carter is in producing so many moments of genuine beauty and heart. The relationship between George and Simone has echoes of a reverse My Fair Lady or once again keeping Caine’s back catalogue in mind, Educating Rita. When they first meet George is a total fish out of water as he is left to wait in the lobbies of a series of top class hotels while Simone conducts her business in much the same manner of Julie Walters’ working class Rita thrust into the world of academia. As in that film George and Simone are unlikely friends, but in their own way they need each other and as Simone gradually softens some of George’s rougher edges there is a genuine sweetness to the romantic elements of the plot.

That Jordan manages to balance all these different elements and create a coherent film that can draw parallels to films as diverse as Taxi Driver and My Fair Lady and Get Carter and Educating Rita is remarkably impressive. Not only that, but he also manages to inject a consistent and enjoyable level of humour into what is at other times a very dark story. Much of that comes from how out of place George is in his posher surroundings with one particularly great misunderstanding as he attempts to order himself a pot of tea. Crucially George is also a character with a sense of humour himself, which comes across particularly well in his friendship with Thomas played wonderfully by Robbie Coltrane. They make for a brilliant double act from the moment they unite on screen as they discuss the crime novels Thomas has been sending George while he was in prison. George’s love of crime fiction provides a nice little character element while also giving a nice nod towards the film’s neo-noir sections. The closeness of his friendship to Thomas is another factor that helps to soften George’s character and Coltrane’s contribution with a relatively minor role shouldn’t be overlooked, nor should Jordan’s writing as they create a very rounded and developed character in very short time.

Coltrane’s performance is typical of a cast working at the absolute top of their games. Cathy Tyson is excellent in the key role of Simone and importantly shows a genuine chemistry with Hoskins. Simone is a challenging role that requires a gentle romantic quality, but also a toughness to make you believe she has managed to survive as long as she has in the environment she works. Tyson does a magnificent job of bringing those elements together and making her relationship with George believable throughout even when her motivations aren’t always clear. Kate Hardie and Sammi Davis also give excellent turns in challenging roles, while Clarke Peters is convincingly suave and menacing as Anderson.

Finally onto Caine and what is an absolutely perfect piece of casting. In terms of screen time it is a relatively small role for Caine as he plays crime boss Mortwell. He doesn’t appear until half an hour into the action and then only briefly before making a more sustained appearance around fifty minutes in. He makes the most of every second on screen though and is absolutely superb in the role. Although his natural charm and charisma often see him cast as the cheeky likeable lead he has always been particularly convincing when given a nastier edge. He is an imposing physical presence and even with limited screen time he quickly establishes a genuine nastiness to Mortwell. Caine is totally convincing whether he is holding court in the sauna and laughing loudly at his own terrible jokes or menacingly, but unconvincingly telling George that all that matters to him is the happiness of the people who work for him. Once again Jordan deserves huge credit for creating such a well-drawn character in such a short space of time and Mortwell’s insistence on using George’s name repeatedly when in conversation with him, right up until the very end is just one of the terrific traits that make the characters feel so real. With such good writing to work with Caine once again delivers a performance that I can’t imagine anybody could have bettered.

Mona Lisa is a little gem of a film. Jordon creates such a believable world and the actors led by a sensational central performance from Hoskins rise to the challenge producing a film at once brutal and beautiful. Well worth your time.