The American Eagle. What it represents for the United States of America is the unity and tradition of a nation. What it represents for the Steven Seagal-led On Deadly Ground are the absolute strings such values are held up by. On Deadly Ground is on thin ice with its heavily billed cast and Alaska-based mishaps. Seagal, who has phoned it in for years now and couldn’t truly act in the first place, is a shaky man to lead a feature like this. He is tall and can move his mouth in a way that makes words. That is all On Deadly Ground requires of any of its cast members, and it is startling that some fail to make much traction in that area. But On Deadly Ground dares to ask the ultimate question. Do cool men look at explosions, or do they not?
Michael Caine, at the age of 88, has retired from acting. It is not as big a surprise as it should be. Two years into a difficult time for filmmakers, with a global pandemic and shift in audience attitude and viewing style, and there were bound to be career casualties.
His announcement came in an interview with Simon Mayo for Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review, where the veteran actor revealed that his work on upcoming feature Best Sellers would be his last.
Where does that sweet spot between parody and satire overlap? Few pieces of art have managed it, and most have been accidental. Those that strive for an intentional link between the two are far weaker than those that have found it without trying. Blowing the cult culture wide open, there is a layer of comedy films from around the dying days of the 20th century that burst into the new age of the world with a strange tenacity. Austin Powers in Goldmember is not one of them, but the Mike Myers-led trilogy certainly had what it takes to become that. It used to be.
A classic rendition of old meeting young, Is Anybody There? wishes to disperse and diversify the conversation around ageism. Wishing to do something and actually doing it are two different opportunities, and while John Crowley’s heart is in the right place, his head is elsewhere. He has not switched on as best he can, but he never did for Intermission and did not do so with his big break, Brooklyn, either. His collaboration with Michael Caine should offer up something of value, Caine has that ability, but it is not utilised here. Instead, Is Anybody There? does what most dramas do. Nothing much at all.
Farcical times in the land of Eurasia appears to be the gift Gambit gives. The cheeky cockney Michael Caine wishes to pull off the perfect heist. It is something he would do for decades across his career, Literal heists in King of Thieves and Flawless and heists of the heart in Sleuth and Alfie. Gambit falls into the former category, but flirts around the edges of the latter, as all 60s-based comedy crime capers must. These sad inevitabilities feel stale not because of their lack of longevity, but because they feel uninspired and inevitable. Gambit circumvents the problem somewhat, with charm and charisma oozing from Caine and Shirley MacLaine.
Arabicus Pulp was born in a Sheffield school. They ditched the Arabicus bit, pooled their influence from this Michael Caine thriller, and simply became Pulp. That is where one would think the influence ends, but there is more to Pulp than that. Thick rimmed glasses and over-sexualised lyrics were the forte of Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker, but they are values seemingly instilled by this Caine-led piece from director Mike Hodges. Odd-fitting suits and narration that details the many mistakes Caine’s character has made. He opens us into his life abroad, and how the menial work his wife provided at the funeral parlour was not enough to satiate his desire to be creative, even if that creativity was to write salacious novels for a low-brow public.
There is a level of lengthy tension to be found within Sleuth. According to production notes, the new up-and-comer, working-class labourer Michael Caine and the established Lord Olivier did not hit the ground running. It does not show in Sleuth, which is a compelling bit of brilliance that utilises the two to their fullest, finest potential. But their initial impressions of one another, and the light flutters of animosity and rigid Britishness soon dissipate, and in its place, there is a finely crafted mystery thriller to be found, one that gives both characters a comeuppance. That is one of the many beauties of Sleuth, it adapts the issues off-screen and bleeds them into the story.
Michael Caine plays tough men. He has done so since the early days of his career, and rarely does he break cover to offer anything other than that. Even in his twilight years, Going in Style and the Batman trilogy, offered up a performance that does not suggest age has gripped him or slowed him down. It is a testament to his craft, and the ageism of the entertainment industry has yet to grip him. Still, it is with the timid and cautious appearances that he performs, perhaps, at his best. Hannah and Her Sisters, for instance, places the often cool, collected Cockney in a place he does not often venture. He is reliable and charming still, but he is vulnerable and frightened and riddled with doubt. Such is the way of a Woody Allen picture.
It is no surprise that Michael Caine stars as the biting, brooding, titular womaniser. His immediate piece of speech to the camera crashes through the fourth wall. Alfie invites his audience inside of his life. His thought process is on display for everyone watching to make their own assumptions about. An unreliable narrator is the oldest trick in the book, but director Lewis Gilbert uses the condescending womaniser to his advantage, turning Caine into a self-centred, coy character. He is assured in his abilities, confident that he can swoon any woman he crosses paths with, and even makes mental notes of what will make them tick. “Make a married woman laugh, and you’re halfway there”, he says as he tries to shoo off another of his victories.
To cobble together thoughts on The Dark Knight over a decade after its release is to look more at its legacy and impact on filmmaking than on any specific part. Many an amicable discussion may come from the longevity of such a piece, whether on the topic of Christopher Nolan’s stunning direction or the blurring of action, thriller and detective genres. Those are effective, but The Dark Knight can work best as an understanding of comic book villains. It sets the bar high for those that wish to replicate these heroes and horror stories for later iterations. It holds a legacy that is known by many, mainly the tragic brilliance of Heath Ledger. But to look beyond that for a moment, there are performances here that outshine the craft he presents, moments that provide subtlety, unnoticed in the face of the best-remembered scenes and quotable moments.