Monday, August 14, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE HUNTER'S PRAYER (2017) and THE EXCEPTION (2017)

(US/Spain - 2017)

A somewhat low-key take on THE PROFESSIONAL and THE TRANSPORTER, THE HUNTER'S PRAYER only managed a stealth VOD burial in June 2017 after over two years on the shelf. There's nothing original or inventive about it, but it's a perfectly acceptable time-killing chase thriller that's executed reasonably well in the capable hands of the long-absent Jonathan Mostow (BREAKDOWN, U-571), directing his first film since the 2009 Bruce Willis sci-fi dud SURROGATES. Mostow stepped in after journeyman Philip Noyce (PATRIOT GAMES, THE BONE COLLECTOR) bailed during pre-production, and had his TERMINATOR 3 and SURROGATES writing team of John Brancato & Michael Ferris (THE GAME) rework the script after Paul Leydon (THE FACTORY) and Oren Moverman (THE MESSENGER) took cracks at adapting Kevin Wignall's 2004 novel For the Dogs. Sam Worthington (also one of 24 credited producers) is Lucas, a junkie hit man in the employ of shady UK financial titan Addison (DOWNTON ABBEY's Allen Leech). Another assassin, Metzger (RED ROAD's Martin Compston) has been sent to New York to whack the family of Martin Hatto (Eben Young), an associate who embezzled funds from Addison's company and is about to expose his illegal dealings to the FBI and Interpol. Lucas' assignment is to kill Hatto's teenage daughter Ella (THE GIVER's Odeya Rush), who's enrolled in posh boarding school in Switzerland. Haunted by PTSD from his military days in Fallujah, and now a hopeless drug addict with a young daughter he's never met, Lucas has a change of heart and decides to become Ella's protector as Addison sends Metzger and corrupt FBI flunky Banks (TRANSPARENT's Amy Landecker) to pursue the pair through Europe.

There's also a less technological BOURNE element (sorry, no "crisis suites" or Addison flunkies staring at a row of monitors and shouting "There he is! It's Lucas!") to the tireless pursuit of Lucas and Ella, and while it's not exactly a high-energy action thriller, Mostow keeps THE HUNTER'S PRAYER reasonably well-paced and entertaining. Almost everything is telegraphed in advance and easy to see coming unless you've never seen a movie before: the moment Lucas says he's never met his daughter, we know he's meeting her by the end. Likewise, the moment Lucas shows Ella how to load and fire a gun, we know she'll be the one to ultimately take out Addison during the inevitable showdown in the murky catacombs underneath his castle-like fortress. And of course, the moment Lucas and Ella begin to bond, we know he'll realize he has a reason to live and she'll care for him when he quits the needle cold turkey and goes through his FRENCH CONNECTION II-inspired withdrawal. Worthington, who's been taking on more character roles in films like EVEREST and HACKSAW RIDGE after years of Hollywood trying to make him a thing following AVATAR and CLASH OF THE TITANS (where Liam Neeson managed to upstage him and the entire cast with one perfect line), does a credible job in a role that feels like it was written with Jason Statham in mind. There's nothing here to get really excited about it--it is what it is, but if you're looking for a fairly diverting chase thriller with no thinking required, you can do a lot worse than THE HUNTER'S PRAYER. (R, 91 mins)

(Germany/US/Switzerland/Belgium - 2017)

The kind of prestige period drama that probably would've starred Keira Knightley and James McAvoy a decade ago and gotten at least seven Oscar nominations, THE EXCEPTION instead was given a limited release and a DirecTV dumping by A24 and will be a complete non-factor come awards season. Based on the 2003 novel The Kaiser's Last Kiss by Alan Judd, THE EXCEPTION is a fictionalized look at events in the last year of the life of Germany's abdicated Kaiser Wilhelm II, played here by the always magnificent Christopher Plummer. Set in 1940 at Wilhelm's palace in Utrecht, where he's been in exile since 1918, the film centers on Nazi Capt. Stefan Brandt (Jai Courtney), a disgraced officer given the duty of heading to the Netherlands to lead security for the Kaiser, who serves no current political purpose but is still viewed as a figure of great symbolic importance to Hitler's Germany. Brandt's real assignment--and his shot at redemption after standing up to a brutal senior officer who took way too much joy in mowing down some Jewish children--is to determine if the Dutch Resistance has planted a spy among the Kaiser's housekeeping staff. Of course, Brandt makes the job difficult by having a torrid, borderline NIGHT PORTER-ish fling with Mieke (BABY DRIVER's Lily James), one of the Kaiser's maids and a secret Jew. Brandt is a Nazi with a conscience, and Mieke being Jewish doesn't really bother him, but what he doesn't know and what any seasoned moviegoer will immediately figure out is that Mieke is the spy. She's working for Winston Churchill and the British government, there to observe any possible interaction between the Kaiser and high-ranking Nazi officials. Of course, it gets personal once she has a chance to avenge the murder of her Jewish parents when the Kaiser is visited by Heinrich Himmler (Eddie Marsan). A conflicted Brandt is torn between his duty to Germany and his love for Mieke, and their forbidden affair is encouraged by the Kaiser who, in the context of this film, is shown demonstrating some mildly anti-Semitic sentiments but nothing of the level of the monstrous Himmler, which isn't really historically accurate--in real life, the Kaiser's papers written as late as 1940 reveal a still very virulent anti-Semite. In the fictionalized, romance novel world of THE EXCEPTION, the Kaiser is reduced to playing a wizened, wily matchmaker who inspires these two crazy kids to set aside the whole "Germans hate the Jews" thing and maybe they can make it after all. And we know they will, because Brandt ultimately chooses good over evil when he embraces Mieke, looks her in the eye, and proclaims "I've found something else to fight for." Maybe they should've fought for a better script.

THE EXCEPTION looks lavish enough but is hokey and insultingly simplistic throughout, with Brandt's cliched character (he's not the rule, he's "the exception," get it?) never registering thanks to the utterly blank Courtney (A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD, TERMINATOR: GENISYS, SUICIDE SQUAD), who's never going to be a star no matter how many times the movie industry tries to make him happen. He's completely miscast and entirely too present-day, Magic Mike buff to be a Nazi captain in 1940 (I'd suggest picturing Channing Tatum in this role, but Tatum is smart enough to know his limitations). Courtney sucks the energy out of scene after scene with his monotone delivery and blank stare, barely able to hold his own in scenes with James and Janet McTeer as the Kaiser's wife. Tony Award-winning stage director David Leveaux, making his big-screen directing debut, does Courtney a further disservice by giving Brandt a bunch of scenes with the Kaiser. And rest assured, nothing spotlights a mediocre leading man's shortcomings like having him spend significant chunks of screen time opposite Christopher Plummer, an 87-year-old living legend who's got more star power in his bowel movements than Courtney's been capable of mustering over his entire career. Some hyped actors that Hollywood insists on making a thing end up maturing into first-rate actors--Matthew McConaughey and Colin Farrell come to mind--so there's a chance Courtney might get better as he gets older. I don't mean to be a dick and dog Courtney so hard. He's probably a nice guy. But he's just...not good. And neither is THE EXCEPTION. (R, 107 mins)

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