Tommy Lee Jones

Emperor (2013)

Based on a true story, General MacArthur – a wonderfully grisly and crinkled Tommy Lee Jones – is debating whether to charge Emperor Hirothio as a war criminal due to Pearl Harbour.  He puts Brigadier General Bonner Fellers – a tired and greying Matthew Fox – in charge of establishing his involvement.

There’s a complicated backstory to Hirothio’s reign during the Second World War, with historians still debating today as to how guilty he really was. So it’s a shame that Director Peter Webber (Girl with the Pearl Earring) packs such a weighty and true story into a lean 98 minutes and spends half that running time having Fellers reminiscing about a former Japanese lover. The film’s flashbacks bring nothing, except a reinforcement of Fellers’ niceness and detract from what should be the meat of the story.

It could be argued that the Emperor is merely an omnipotent spectre in a script where Feller is the sole focus, but Fox is so utterly un-engaging that it just seems a waste. This is particularly annoying as Jones is so good. When the gnarled MacArthur finally meets with the recently humbled Hirothio, you want to soak up the clash of cultures. However we’re given very little time to do so before we’re brushed outside with Feller. Emperor is a potentially engaging historical drama transformed into a Titanic-lite tale of love and loss.

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Emperor (2012)

Based on a true story, General MacArthur – a wonderfully grisly and crinkled Tommy Lee Jones – is debating whether to charge Emperor Hirothio as a war criminal due to Pearl Harbour. He puts Brigadier General Bonner Fellers – a tired and greying Matthew Fox – in charge of establishing his involvement.

There’s a complicated backstory to Hirothio’s reign during the Second World War, with historians still debating today as to how guilty he really was. So it’s a shame that Director Peter Webber (Girl with the Pearl Earring) packs such a weighty and true story into a lean 98 minutes and spends half that running time having Fellers reminiscing about a former Japanese lover. The film’s flashbacks bring nothing, except a reinforcement of Fellers’ niceness and detract from what should be the meat of the story.

It could be argued that the Emperor is merely an omnipotent spectre in a script where Feller is the sole focus, but Fox is so utterly un-engaging that it just seems a waste. This is particularly annoying as Jones is so good. When the gnarled MacArthur finally meets with the recently humbled Hirothio, you want to soak up the clash of cultures. However we’re given very little time to do so before we’re brushed outside with Feller. Emperor is a potentially engaging historical drama transformed into a Titanic-lite tale of love and loss.

Rolling Thunder (1977)

Playing like a relic from a forgotten age rather than a simple revenge thriller set on the Mexican border, John Flynn’s violent 1977 movie Rolling Thunder garnered a shiny DVD and Blu-Ray release late last year that was welcomed by it’s substantial, cult following. Tarantino regularly puts this in his “All Time Top 10” and it’s easy to see why, William Devane’s anti hero Major Charles Rane could be found in any sensible lineage leading to The Bride in the Kill Bill films.

Based on a Paul Schrader story of a racist vigilante cleaning up a Texan town, Schrader saw Thunder as a companion piece to Taxi Driver but when Heywood Gould came on board the script was changed and Schrader’s Charles Rane turned into a war hero, returning from six years imprisonment and torture at the hands of the Vietcong. Meeting a son he barely knows and finding his wife has chosen another man during the uncertainty barely fazes Rane, stuck as he is, reliving the tortures at night. Worsening the situation somewhat, a gang of not nice men at all break into Rane’s house, torture him and eventually eviscerate his hand in the waste disposal unit all to discover the location of the 2000 silver dollars given to Rane as a bravery gift by the city of San Antonio. As an afterthought they casually shoot his wife and son. Telling the police he has no memory of the attackers Major Charles Rane sharpens his new hook hand, calls his old prison camp buddy Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones) and heads on down to Mexico…..

Generally, throwing Vietnam war vet, death of wife and child, Tex Mex gangsters and hook hand into the mix should produce a guilty pleasure best enjoyed slightly inebriated. However, Flynn’s enthusiastic direction and Devane’s steely eyed performance lift this way above simple exploitation fare, injecting knowledgeable storytelling and empathy for a man hurting inside and out. Linda Haynes helps out with a warm and funny turn as a waitress drawn to the darkness in Major Rane, she acts as his conscience, warning him (and us) of the dangers of going so far as to never be allowed back. Lawrenson Driscoll has an almost Scatman Crothers in the Shining journey across Texas and the border to help Rane before meeting an inevitable end. Best of all the supporting cast however is a young, taciturn Tommy Lee Jones.

Tommy Lee Jones is deployed as a sort of retro active Chekhov’s Gun here. It being impossible to imagine that after being shown Tommy Lee Jones at the start of the film  he will not be there at the end, taking names and tagging toes. Jones obliges, closing the story with Devane in a gutsy, visceral shootout in a Mexican brothel that, ranking wise for such things, is far better than the climax of From Dusk Till Dawn but not quite as engaging (or self knowing) as the whorehouse conclusion in the superlative The Way of the Gun. Just so you know.

Rolling Thunder might be the first film ever to understay it’s welcome, the credits rolling almost as soon as the shooting stops which is just as it should be. Well done to John Flynn and a lesson for everyone.

In the Electric Mist (2009)

Tommy Lee Jones is Dave Robicheaux, James Lee Burke’s tough, grizzled, New Orleans detective. Fortunately, Tommy Lee Jones’ name is almost always preceded by the words tough and grizzled so it seems a match made in heaven. Dave Robicheaux first cropped up on screen in Heaven’s Prisoners played by wordgame fan Alec Baldwin. From Baldwin to Lee Jones in 13 short years means life must have been very tough on Dave Robicheaux. Jones plays Robicheaux like he plays any other, world weary, strong and silent, basically decent American; Competently and apparently effortlessly. Every other actor seems to be showing off when placed on screen with his sad sack, southern fried, ex alcoholic. Particular mention must go to John Sayles, who plays a director so badly it jarrs the picture out of focus. Not quite Roth in Basterds bad in the director-actor canon but not wise either.

Robicheaux is asked to solve a case of mutilated prostitutes on the City’s time but also carries the murder of a black prisoner he witnessed when he was younger around with him, lurking unsolved and unpunished in his mind. The old case rears it’s racially aggravated head when a movie star (Peter Saarsgard) finds the body on location of a civil war drama being shot out in the Bayous.

New Orleans is that most iconic and enigmatic of American film cities (down at the back NYC), filled with architecture, weather and attitudes totally unlike the rest of mainland USA. The devastation wreaked on her by Katrina is impossible to ignore, rude even. Empty streets and abandoned cars litter shots and we are comprehensively given the impression of a city and people ony just attempting a recovery. Not as shoved in your face as Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant retread, where Cage’s scenery chewing added to the destruction on display. Here, the damage is visible, yet muted, mostly in the background or behind the eyes of the actors.

 Mist is directed by (semi) acclaimed european film maker Bertrand Tavernier, the draw of post Katrina shooting seemingly too tempting to ignore. It doesn’t feel like a Tavernier film (apart from being a thriller), much less a european one. There is a suspicion of studio interference, it never got an American theatrical release and was released across europe in two cuts. The pace zips along, revalations come thick and fast and character’s emotions turn on a dime (sic). The languid drawl of New Orleans and it’s star could maybe have been served better with a more stately pace, ramping up the tension slowly and building to the boil.

As the indignities put upon Robicheaux and the victims of the cases mount up so too does Robicheaux’s interpretation of the law. After refusing to plant a weapon to protect himself he, almost instantly, descends into Jack Bauer, whatever it takes, territory. Evidence is planted, people (John Goodman) are tortured for information and no one (least of all Robicheaux) bats an eyelid. Not even the green behind the ears Mexican FBI agent assigned to work the case objects to Robicheaux helping her out by placing a weapon in a dead guy’s hand. Given that Robicheaux is technically investigating a crime covered up by the Police in less racially aware times this stinks of high hypocrisy and goes close to causing a sympathy abandonment of the protagonist. As always though, Jones pulls us through (except in Cobb, now that guy was an arsehole) with a shake of his head and a fervent belief in what’s right is right in the end, we’re still rooting for him as he hugs his long suffering wife.

The problem with making crime thrillers that attempt to dovetail two seemingly unconnected crimes into one conspiracy or case is that all roads lead to Chinatown. The elegance, vitality and spite of that timeless film casts a long, long shadow. In the Electric Mist is not a poor thriller then, it’s a competent one just not a superior one as the superlative goes. In the end though, it’s just not Chinatown.