Category Archives: Thriller

#220 – Night Driving

(1978, US, 111 min) Dir Jack Blackstaff. Cast Omar Sharif.

Northern Irish director Blackstaff elected to follow the Death Wish bandwagon jumping of Anvil Strikes! with Night Driving, seemingly designed by the producers to race the same year’s Convoy to theatres. Apparently uninterested in the plot of their film however, so long as it had trucks and CB lingo in it, they were presented with this supernatural number, surely the strangest entry in Omar Sharif’s CV and atypical of Blackstaff’s usual work. Sharif plays a cross-country trucker by the name of Joe Waylon and as the name might suggest the subject of his nationality and race are never mentioned – so far as the film’s concerned Sharif’s just another red-blooded American trucker and I’m not sure this is progressive or of Blackstaff couldn’t be bothered with a rewrite. Anyway – he’s pulling an all-nighter to get to the west coast through the Nevada hills when he’s cut off by another truck, all black and driving hell for leather with no lights on. In no time it’s vanished into the dark. Joe pulls in at the next stop and is greeted icily when he mentions this reckless driver. Perturbed, he carries on only to find that wherever he goes it seems he can see the black truck always up ahead and just out of reach. He races on, ever faster, trying to catch it. A deeply odd film that’s a strange blend of the existential road movie like of Two Lane Blacktop or Vanishing Point and the supernatural. Despite the potential for ridiculousness (and a generous frame of mind helps when watching) a committed performance from Sharif makes a little go a long way.

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#178 – Great Storm, The

(2011, US, 109 min) Dir Jack Burch. Cast Michael Shannon, Paul Dano, Jena Malone, Benicio del Toro.

Michael Shannon is the explosives expert in a cell of eco-terrorists who is known only as Banger and when a planned raid on a dam is foiled by the police he suddenly becomes their leader. The media attention surrounding the arrest divides the group and drives them underground but somehow, where the police can’t find Banger, Benicio del Toro’s mysterious unnamed South American does. He is representing a Brazillian rubber company, he says, the name of which Banger wouldn’t know if he was told it. Del Toro has a proposition – the vast rubber plantations in South East Asia have caused untold ecological damage and will cause much more without the diseases that kept the plant in check in it’s native South America. Perhaps Banger and his crew would smuggle in some of the offending Microcyclus ulei and aid the decimation of this environmental disaster? “Why would we help you?” asks Banger. “I think you’d do a deal with the devil to get what you want,” is the reply. And he’s right – Banger contacts Alvin and Sasha, the only other members of the cell remaining, who now have to get to Laos and begin their new mission, never realising the dangers that lie ahead. A tense yet low key thriller.

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#174 – Black Book, The

(1985, US/GB, 106 min) Dir James G Marshall. Cast Gabriel Byrne, Theresa Russell, Ian Holm, Billie Whitelaw, Phil Daniels, Alexi Sayle.

Alexander Kasin (Byrne) is a rising star in the KGB tasked with tracking down the author of the so-called Black Book of the title, dozens of copies of which have been disseminated across the Soviet Union via the producers of handmade publications known as samizdat. The file on said book is very thin – no copy has yet been found by the authorities though numerous references have been logged from intercepted mail, bugged telephones and the confessions of criminals. “There are not many copies in circulation,” he superior tells him, “But so far as we can tell the contents of this book are so volatile none can be tolerated.” So Kasin begins his investigation in the usual places – checking in with his informers, known black market operators and the samizdat slinging intelligentsia – but not only draws a blank but meets a kind of frightened resistance totally uncommon to him in his usual course of work. As he digs ever deeper and finds himself on a trail that leads to the obscurer ends of his homeland it occurs to him that he’s not on the trail of something new, but of a cancer as old as his country with a dark purpose at its heart. A classy, creepy detective film full of unplumbed darkness. An US/GB co-production directed by a Canadian, populated almost entirely with British actors and fantastically shot by veteran Irish DOP Brendan Bradley in snow bound Finland, The Black Book was made on the back of Gorky Park’s success but was sadly unable to replicate it. Not to be confused with Verhoeven’s Black Book nor indeed the Dylan Moran sitcom Black Books.

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#156 – This Burning Rock

(1978, US, 120 min) Dir Arthur Penn. Cast John Travolta, Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms.

Appalachian set eco-thriller based on mountaintop removal mining and the opposition thereof. Frank (Bridges) and Joe (Travolta) are buddies that went their own ways after high school – Frank to University and Joe to work. It’s been a few years but Frank’s back in town on unknown business. He and Joe go out for a few drinks to catch up on old times. Now Joe hasn’t told Frank but he’s working with the crew that are going to blow the top off Eagle Rock Mountain to mine it for coal but that’s okay – Frank hasn’t told Joe that he’s there to monkeywrench the operation. Of course we know what’s going on and we know at some point that the two of them are sure to collide. In the meantime the film winds itself ever tighter with the mechanics of the mountaintop removal as nail-biting as Frank’s nocturnal recces and basement bomb building. A fine example of that Seventies brand of gritty thriller, like a French Connection in the wild with plenty of time to lay out its characters along with the action. Produced after the megaflop of The Missouri Breaks, this taut, economical thriller didn’t do much better despite also having a stellar cast but it’s reputation has improved with age.

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#145 – Operation Reptile

(1988, Fr/US, 130 min) Dir Roland Sacher. Cast Christopher Lambert, Antonio Banderas, Fernando Rey.

Tense Day of the Jackal style thriller based on true life events surrounding the assassination of former Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle while he was living in exile in Alfredo Stroessner’s Paraguay. The guts of the film detail the lead up to the act itself – how the team entered the country, how they were armed, the months of meticulous monitoring of Debayle’s movements. The scene of the assassination itself is suspense brought to the point of dread perfection – as if the lead up to Debayle’s car being stopped in the road wasn’t bad enough the rocket launcher that is to deliver the killing blow suddenly stops working and Banderas’ character has mere seconds to act. I could feel everyone in the cinema leaning into the screen at that moment and could hear the sound of gripped armrests creaking under the stress. Everything works here from the unshowy performances to the matter of fact photography to the clear, propulsive editing. This is the film that set Sacher back on the straight and narrow after a string of flops and misfires, setting him up nicely for his streak of classics through the nineties.

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