Review: Only God Forgives

FILM
ONLY GOD FORGIVES
Cert 18 | By Steve Dinneen
Three stars

SO, ONLY God Forgives… Owwwwkaaaaaaay… Nicholas Winding Refn’s blood-soaked Bangkok revenge movie makes his previous film, Drive, look like a kids movie about a plucky stuntman.

It’s essentially a collection of stylish, exquisitely orchestrated but disjointed scenes portraying a level of graphic violence that it’s hard not to call gratuitous. It revels in its brutality; you can almost hear Winding Refn heavy-breathing at every severed limb and smashed skull. His vision of Bangkok slaps and squelches and everything smells of sex.

There isn’t much in the way of plot: American drug-dealer Billy (Tom Burke) – a vicious psychopath who runs a Bangkok boxing gym with his brother Julian (Ryan Gosling) – murders a prostitute, just for the hell of it. He’s that kind of guy. The local police chief, a mysterious, sword-wielding sociopath called Chang, tips off the girl’s father, who makes an impressive mess of Billy. Then the boys’ mother, Crystal, arrives, seeking retribution of her own.

Gosling isn’t known for his verbosity but he takes the strong, silent thing to a whole new level. If he were paid by the word, he wouldn’t have earned his bus fare home. Winding Refn’s pornification of his leading man is almost as gratuitous as the violence – the camera leers at him like a horny teenager, lingering on his chiseled jaw and bulging pecs, as if amazed by the sheer prettiness of the man.

Julian doesn’t say much because he has a lot on his mind. For a start, he has mother issues like you wouldn’t believe. You can see why. Kristin Scott Thomas’ Crystal – by far the movie’s best performance – is a gaudy, malevolent Barbie doll who takes great pleasure in humiliating her son. She’s less quick to judge Billy; when Julian tells her his brother raped and murdered a 16-year-old she replies: “Well, I’m sure he had his reasons.”

There are no good characters, only broken, vapid ones; no emotion, only violence. It’s a two dimensional, neon-soaked portrait of seedy lives in a grim town. The only character with any depth is Chang, who, in his time off, can be found belting out lovelorn karaoke songs. You’re left to ponder his motives for seeking revenge – is he the eponymous God, a righteous vigilante or just a sadist with a sword?

The dearth of plot makes you hyper-aware of the film’s stylistic flourishes, some of which, such as repeated shots of a kitsch, golden boxing idol, start to grate.

Only God Forgives isn’t a great film. It’s self-indulgent and frustrating; strip away the bright colours and extravagant set-pieces and you’re left with a fairly standard genre movie. Winding Refn sure has a sense of style, though – and for that, I can forgive a lot.

FILM
THE HEAT
Cert 15 | By Alex Dymoke
Two stars

JUST weeks after indie hit Frances Ha, comes another entry into that shamefully neglected Hollywood genre: the female buddy movie. Great! Well, it would be if it were funny.

Hotshot FBI agent Sarah Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) is sent to Boston to investigate a string of drug-related murders. Her boss promises her a promotion if she can solve the case and cooperate with her new colleagues at the Boston police department. Standing in the way of that promotion is the hulking frame of no-nonsense blue collar cop Shannon Mullins (Melissa McCarthy). Mullins has no time for Ashburn’s goody-two-shoes haughtiness; Ashburn is disturbed by Mullins’ potty mouth and rough ‘em up approach.

McCarthy and Bullock have decent chemistry but the script artlessly draws out the contrast between their characters. In one scene, presumably designed to depict Mullins as humble and unpretentious, the Bostonian cop refers to the curtains in her run down flat as “window blankets”. Window Blankets? Really? Surely knowing what a curtain is isn’t the preserve of the college-educated elite.

It was only when I noticed some scenes were significantly worse than others that I realised... wait... no... they’re not... surely they’re not... oh god, they are aren’t they... they’re... improvising. Like caucasian dreadlocks, improvisational comedy stops being acceptable when you leave university.

Why would I want to watch something that’s just popped into Sandra Bullock’s head?

FILM
RED 2
Cert 15 | By Simon Thomson
Three stars

RED 2 is a jaunty mix of comedy and violence, about former spies who are Retired and Extremely Dangerous.

A couple of years ago producers suddenly realised that there are lots of older people, and that they might like to see movies featuring people their own age. An artefact of this period is 2010’s RED. Based on a comic by Southend-on-Sea’s Warren Ellis, RED is essentially The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel with explosives. Bruce Willis is a retired CIA operative who teams up with a civilian, Mary-Louise Parker, and some former Cold-Warriors including John Malkovich, Brian Cox (the actor, not the physicist), and Helen Mirren, to blow things up and shoot baddies.

RED 2 refines the formula and adds Welsh people (Anthony Hopkins as a mad scientist and Catherine Zeta-Jones as a Russian general, obviously), to deliver a slicker, more engaging film.

The plot is thin and little more than an excuse for a series of fights and spy-shenanigans. It involves a WikiLeak that frames Willis, Parker, and Malkovich, as terrorists, leading to the issuing of a kill order against them. They go to London to rescue Hopkins, who has spent the last three decades locked in a secret insane asylum next to Tower Bridge. MI6 hires Mirren to assassinate them, and Zeta-Jones dresses like a pimp from a ‘70s blaxploitation film.

RED 2 never takes itself too seriously, with banter and slapstick leavening a film that might otherwise have been stolid and repetitive. It is proof that there is still room in film for entertaining, mid-budget action movies where no aliens attack, no cities are destroyed, and no super-humans are punched through buildings.

Is it great art? Don’t be silly. Will it keep you happily distracted as you shovel popcorn into your face-hole? Absolutely.

ART
RED NEVER FOLLOWS
Saatchi Gallery | by Alex Dymoke
Four stars

RED Never Follows – an exhibition to mark 20 years of the HUGO brand – is a fashion show that swaps jackets and trousers for mind-reading kinetic sculptures (Güvenc Özel) and ultra-violet light installations (Jeongmoon Choi). Even if you don’t have the slightest interest in clothes, there is plenty to hold your attention.

As you enter, you’re confronted with an installation from Germany’s Felix Bonowski. Projected twig-like objects fall from the ceiling; stand in front of them and they give the illusion of bouncing off your body.

It’s a fun and engaging glimpse into the future, and a great way to while away an afternoon with the kids during the holidays.