Thursday, 7 September 2017
Stratton ‘til Morning
2017 UK Directed by Simon West
UK cinema release print.
Warning: Some very minor spoilerage in this one.
I always find Simon West a bit hit and miss as a director, to be honest. I hadn’t thought too much of the Stratton trailer when I saw it a few weeks ago but was willing to give it a try because I quite like Dominic Cooper and it’s rare that I actually get to see him headlining a movie... especially an action movie, no less. I loved him as the vampire turned hunter in Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (reviewed here), for instance. Stratton is based on the main character from the majority of Duncan Falconer’s novels and is a bit of a stand in for Falconer himself, who modelled the character after his time in the Special Boat Service of the Royal Navy (basically the Navy’s version of the SAS). However, I don’t think this movie is based on any of the specific Stratton novels, or they would have been more forthcoming with a ‘based on’ credit at least somewhere (although I could be wrong).
Now, it has to be said that the film has had some pretty awful word of mouth and, to be fair, it does have its problems but the film is not too bad if you don’t mind the action sequences seeming a bit lacking in this one. Of course, you could argue it’s an action film but, to avoid disappointment, you might want to tell yourself it’s a secret agent film with some action sequences thrown in. Either way, if you’re going for the action you might want to have a little rethink as no reviewer, I would imagine, would call this ‘high octane’ stuff. However, like I said, it’s not too bad.
The film opens strongly with two agents, one of whom is Dominic Cooper as Stratton, as they go through an underwater tube/pipe system to penetrate a ‘secret lair’ but the mission goes horribly wrong due to incorrect intel and also the fact that “the bad guys” knew they were coming. This opening sequence, following on from some nicely designed main titles, is quite suspenseful and everything you could want it to be... up until a point. That point being when the two agents leave the tube system and find themselves in an empty complex with the object of their mission already snaffled by the bad guys, a load of dead workers and a load of gunmen standing between them and their extraction point. It’s here that the inadequacy of the budget (which I assume was low on the evidence of the resulting film) seems to sink in and things get less exciting. For instance, when Stratton lets off all the charges that he and his fellow agent have planted in the ‘is it a secret lair or... what the heck is it’ place, well... we had indoor fireworks once, when I was a kid and, to be honest, they had more of a bang than the sad, little explosion that occurs here.
And that’s the real big problem with this film... the action sequences. I don’t know if the stunts and effects work in this were affected by a terribly low budget, as I imagine it to be, or were just not very well conceived. The case could be made that the dialogue scenes leading up to and around those ‘not quite set pieces’ are actually quite good (although a little predictable) but I did think the writers did well in painting some nice little portraits of the lead character and his team.
Of course, the actors here more than pull their weight with that dialogue, with Cooper ably supported by Derek Jacobi as his ‘boat life friend’ as well as Connie Nielsen, who I’d recently seen as Queen Hippolyta in Wonder Woman (reviewed here), a role she will be reprising in the upcoming Justice League movie, by the looks of things. Here, she plays Stratton’s boss and the dynamic is like a slightly more active version of the Judi Dench version of M from the Bond films but it kinda works and I was quite impressed how the character didn’t do the obvious things like reprimanding the team for the various shenanigans that they botch up during their missions and she seemed like a really fair boss to work for, I’d have to say. Also, watch out for a lady on Stratton’s team called Aggy... she is played here by an actress called Gemma Chan and she’s one of those people who dominates the screen whenever she’s on. I wouldn’t be surprised if some director cottons on to this in future and she starts getting some major league roles (fingers crossed).
Cooper himself is okay in the lead role but I just didn’t really believe him as the kind of action man the writers wanted me to think of him as. I know Henry Cavill dropped out a week before shooting this and I wonder how tailored the role was to that actor. I do know Cooper looks uncannily like GI Joe in this one than was too close for comfort. And by that I mean the specific English character called GI Joe. To explain, as a child no kid had the internet or even much of a hint as to what was going on in the rest of the world in the same period of history other than what they caught on TV so we weren’t really aware of global, alternative brand names. In England, the American GI Joe line was manufactured by Palitoy and known over here, quite affectionately by people of a certain age, as Action Man. However, one of the 'action men' had a scruffy looking beard and that one was known as GI Joe. And it’s this scruffy beard that both Dominik Cooper and his new work partner, played by Austin Stowell, are wearing in this movie as they pursue the bad guy played by Thomas Kretschmann and... I don’t know, it was almost a ‘comedy’ beard as far as I was concerned. I don’t think it helps make Dominic Cooper look like a ‘manly man’s man’ at all and it kind of slips into the realm of camp humour at certain points. Ah well, at least his beard and moustache didn’t get better lines than he did and, despite this slight problem, Mr. Cooper still does a fantastic and believable job with his character so... not complaining too much.
The score, by the way, by Nathaniel Méchaly, is absolutely superb and plays just like the score to a modern Bond movie, only better. It seems to be used a lot in an almost inappropriately up tempo style to make the scenes somehow play faster than they actually are and I couldn’t help but think of a young Elmer Bernstein employing the same tactic to speed up the pacing of The Magnificent Seven all those decades ago. Méchaly does some really good work here and I truly think EON productions should give this one a listen and maybe give him a shot at the next Bond film because, quite frankly, he’s already doing it here. This stuff is in a way different ball park from his earlier scores for the Taken trilogy, for sure. Such a shame, then, that the score is unavailable to buy at the time of writing this review. A nice CD of this would not go amiss.
But like I said, the action is a bit of a problem here. Other action movies might end with a shoot out or chase on a cruise liner or an aircraft or with a big building going boom... this one has a double decker bus chase. Not that I’m knocking the ability of the humble double decker bus to take part in action movies, after all we’ve seen the effectiveness of said transportation in both Live And Let Die (reviewed here) and The Mummy Returns. It has to be said, though, the ending of this movie falls a little shy of spectacular and the post-action scene stab at the possibility of a future romance in Stratton’s life seems like such an afterthought that it’s a little laughable. Also, there’s a twist with one of the characters which is revealed about half way through but, even though I had no clue there should be a twist, I figured out that there would be because one of the characters seemed a little too shady. Which is bizarre but I saw it coming from the opening sequence onwards in terms of the identity of the ‘mole’ in the department so, yeah, not so well played by the writers, on that one, I felt.
All in all, Stratton is not a bad movie... just a little flat. In fact, what it reminded me of mostly was of a really great 'made for TV' movie of the 1970s where they got everything right. It’s just not what I would expect to see being touted in a modern cinema setting. More like an extended episode of The Professionals than something the big leaguers would be knocking out. That being said, I did find it quite enjoyable and diverting so I’ve really no complaints and it genuinely doesn’t deserve the negative attention it’s been getting, that’s for sure. So... see it if you like to watch the odd bit of adventure storytelling and you don’t mind if the action choreography seems a little tame in places. There have been worse movies thrust onto an unsuspecting public this year.