Letter From Toronto: Even Killer Elite Can't Quite Outduel Emmerich's Anonymous
The Toronto Film Festival is a world away from Venice, and the difference is especially acute when you hop from one to the other: Toronto is big and glossy, while Venice is intimate and glowing -- it's like the difference between lacquer and gold leaf. But each has its own appeal, and the scale of Toronto is appealing by itself. It's a little overwhelming but exhilarating, too.
Still, my morning didn't exactly start off with a bang: The day's first screening, of Gary McKendry's Killer Elite, began half an hour late, the kind of glitch that can seriously mess up an already tight morning schedule. Worse yet, the movie wasn't all I was hoping it would be. It wasn't even half what I was hoping it would be. Jason Statham plays a retired Navy SEAL called out of retirement -- doesn't Statham always play reluctant hit men who just want to retire to a cabin in the woods? -- to rescue an old pal, Robert De Niro, who's been kidnapped by a sheik out to avenge the murder of his sons. Clive Owen plays a member of a Special Air Service vigilante group who's out to stop Statham and his gang.
While the idea of having three fine actors in an action movie together is certainly promising, Killer Elite proves that it doesn't really matter who you cast if the filmmaking is just more of the same old choppily edited, noisy action crap. De Niro's character spends most of the movie out of sight, locked up in a room somewhere, though De Niro isn't bad in the 10 or 15 minutes of screentime he's got -- he puts his crazy twinkle to good use. And he does get to fire a machine gun, which is probably a lot more fun for him than playing Pops Focker for the umpteenth time.
Statham and Owen are fine, too, to the extent that they get to do anything. But I'm not sure the best way to use these two actors is to throw them into a blur of grappling, grunting, head-bashing and attempted scissor-stabbing, which is how they first come together. As we already know from movies like Croupier, The International and Children of Men, Owen has much more to offer, and Statham, who was terrific in The Bank Job, desperately needs to break out of the reluctant-action-hero mold he's been locked into. Killer Elite is a middling entertainment -- not terrible, just undistinguished, and maybe that's worse.
In contrast, Roland Emmerich's Anonymous is, at the very least, a curiosity, one with some clever casting and a very fine performance at its core. Emmerich is usually too busy destroying the world or going back in time to cavort with woolly mammoths to give much thought to who, exactly, Shakespeare really was. But that's exactly what he does in Anonymous, which suggests -- in a highly unbelievable fashion -- that the plays and poems we attribute to Shakespeare were really written by one Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, a minor Elizabethan poet.
Well, it could be true. Emmerich treats the possibility solemnly, welcoming us into his movie with a tony intro by Derek Jacobi, who steps into a theater spotlight to deliver a semi-informative prologue in plummy tones. The whole affair is rather silly, and more than a little boring, but there are a few flashes of brilliance tucked amid Emmerich's bid for period-picture classiness. First, there's the inspired casting of Vanessa Redgrave and her daughter, Joely Richardson, as old and young versions of Queen Elizabeth I. Richardson, with her tumble of pale curls, looks like a living, breathing version of John Millais' Ophelia, but tougher. Redgrave plays her version of the character as if she has become more emotionally vulnerable, not less, with age -- the older Elizabeth just works harder to submerge it beneath her imperious veneer.
Both performances are great fun to watch, but it's Rhys Ifans, as the Earl of Oxford, who keeps the movie spinning. He takes dorky, grandiose dialogue and turns it into something almost -- well, Shakespearean. His character has spent his life writing incredible plays and sonnets, but he's forced to hide his identity from the public. As Ifans plays him, he's OK with all that -- it's the personal anguish he's suffered that really matters, and Ifans carries that bruised nobility with him every second. His voice, sonorous and always just faintly sorrowful, reminds me of that of the late, great Richard Harris. Although Harris was Irish and Ifans is Welsh, they're linked in spirit, rapscallions who can really buckle down and surprise you with their depth and heart. I giggled at parts of Anonymous, especially when our earl's angry, disapproving wife catches him at his desk and bellows, like Gale Sondergaard with PMS, "My God! You're writing again!" But I never laughed at Ifans. When you look into those eyes, you could almost believe that this was the guy who wrote all those sonnets.