Film Review of the Week


The Courier (12A)

Review: Real-life espionage at the height of the Cold War provides a solid dramatic framework for director Dominic Cooke’s old-fashioned spy caper. Devoid of the gadgets and tense action sequences that have distinguished the covert operations of James Bond and Jason Bourne, The Courier concentrates on the unlikely friendship between a British businessman and a high-ranking Soviet official, which ultimately defused tensions between President John F Kennedy and Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

Cooke incorporates archive news footage from the era, including Kennedy’s 1961 address before the United Nations General Assembly (“Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles…”), to emphasise the suffocating fear of political stalemate and impending Armageddon. Tom O’Connor’s slow-paced script does not deviate from a well-trodden path but Benedict Cumberbatch elevates solid material with an eye-catching lead performance as the stiff upper-lipped husband and father, who puts his life on the line to serve his country.

He sparks winning screen chemistry with co-star Merab Ninidze as the mole in the Soviet ranks, who rationalises the betrayal of his country as a selfless act for his unsuspecting wife and child. “Sometimes lies are a gift, an act of love,” he sermonises. A psychologically and physically gruelling final act plays to Cumberbatch’s strengths but overstays its welcome.

In 1960, Nikita Khrushchev (Vladimir Chuprikov) stokes the war of words with the US and threatens to push the button on nuclear warfare between the superpowers. Colonel Oleg Penkovsky (Ninidze), who leads the State Committee for Scientific Research, becomes increasingly concerned about the bullish rhetoric and secretly makes contact with the US embassy in Moscow. CIA agent Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) and MI6 counterpart Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) concoct a plan to send an ordinary salesman to the Soviet Union to make contact with Penkovsky and act as a courier for top-secret intelligence.

They hand-pick Greville Wynne (Cumberbatch) for the assignment, who is initially clueless about the potential repercussions for his wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) and young son Andrew (Keir Hills). “If this mission were dangerous, you really are the last person we would send,” Franks assures Greville. The salesman nervously heads to Moscow and quickly bonds with Penkovsky, who seeks a brighter future for his wife and daughter. “Use my information wisely, not as a weapon but as a tool to make peace,” the Soviet counsels Donovan and Franks.

The Courier draws comparisons to Steven Spielberg’s superior Cold War thriller Bridge Of Spies, evoking a similar era of paranoia and suspicion when East and West traded captured operatives. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt opts for a dark palette to reflect the political discord. Protracted torture scenes test our patience but Cooke atones with an emotionally wrought final exchange between Cumberbatch and Ninidze that raises the Iron Curtain an inch or two.

Find The Courier in the cinemas


Free Guy (12A)

Review: Professional video game players including DanTDM, Jacksepticeye, LazarBeam and Pokimane have amassed millions of loyal subscribers on video sharing platforms with their pithy gameplay commentaries. Several of these internet personalities enjoy knowing cameos in Free Guy, which reconfigures hard coding from Tron, Wreck-It Ralph, The Truman Show and Deadpool as an explosive action adventure set in a battle royale-style game similar to Fortnite. The titular hero, a non-player character (NPC) portrayed with boundless charm by Ryan Reynolds, is blissfully unaware that he exists inside a game or that the “sunglasses people” who repeatedly gate-crash his metropolis are the avatars of players from around the world.

Shawn Levy’s film is a delirious, whooping delight in those early scenes, which depict Guy walking calmly and cheerfully through the mounting devastation without blinking an eye. Reynolds savours every blank-faced glance of his loveable innocent, who does not question the infinite loop of his existence until he steals a pair of sunglasses to impress a girl and “levels up” with the hand-to-hand combat skills and tactical nous that will transform him from ones and zeroes to gung-ho hero. Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn’s irreverent script loses its way as Guy becomes master of his own destiny rather than a slave to his programming and the digital wheels really come off in an overblown denouement that sacrifices tenderness and humanity at the altar of slam-bang spectacle.

Thirtysomething bachelor Guy (Reynolds) wakes every morning to the sound of helicopter gunfire in Free City. He cheerfully greets his goldfish, dons the same blue shirt and comfortable khaki trousers and heads to the local bank, where he works as a teller. Best friend Buddy (Lil Rel Howery) is a security guard and several times a day, strangers in sunglasses rob the bank without resistance from the staff. On his way to work one morning, Buddy glimpses Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer) and is smitten.

He is unaware that this vision of gun-toting beauty is the avatar of disgruntled programmer Millie, who hopes to unearth evidence buried in Free City that publishers Soonami, owned by Antwan (Taika Waititi), stole computer code that she originated with partner Keys (Joe Keery). Guy’s world spins off its axis when he realises that he is an NPC. “I may not be real but for a second there, I felt pretty alive!” he tells Molotov Girl and they join forces to bring down Antwan.

For the opening hour, Free Guy is an absolute blast and Reynolds trades heavily on his nice guy person and mischievous sense of humour to endear us to his unsuspecting protagonist. Once plot machinations kick in, oscillating back and forth between Free City and the real world, Levy’s picture glitches and the lack of depth to Comer’s spunky heroine becomes disappointingly apparent.

Find Free Guy in the cinemas


PAW Patrol: The Movie (U)

Review: At a pivotal moment in the first feature-length outing for the computer-animated TV series for pre-schoolers, a conflicted canine hero takes a leap of faith as droplets of rain fall in lustrous slow-motion around them. “Are they going to make it?” gasped the six-year-old girl sitting beside me, transfixed as her favourite puppy defied the rigorous laws of physics that she will learn about in due course. Judged by her reaction, including enthusiastic leaps out of her seat to encourage the eponymous strays to save the day, PAW Patrol: The Movie will wag the tail of its ardent fanbase to repeated blasts of a catchy theme tune that reminds us, “No job’s too big, No pup’s too small”.

Directed at speed by Cal Brunker, the film doesn’t get its “lead in a knot” with a complicated plot or subtle character development, choosing the quickest route to thrills and spills including the daredevil rescue of a driver of a lorry hanging precariously off Adventure Bay’s bridge. The script, co-written by Brunker, Billy Frolick and Bob Barlen, remains cheerfully upbeat and distils easily digestible lessons about courage and self-belief without coming across as heavy-pawed preaching. Scheming arch-villain Humdinger (voiced by Ron Pardo) – boo! hiss! – remains lightly comical, creating sufficient chaos and conflict to sustain a running time just shy of 90 minutes.

Ryder (Will Brisbin) and his canine crew, police dog Chase (Iain Armitage), firefighter dog Marshall (Kingsley Marshall), recycling dog Rocky (Callum Shoniker), construction dog Rubble (Keegan Hedley), air rescue dog Skye (Lilly Bartlam) and aquatic rescue dog Zuma (Shayle Simons), are dismayed to learn that Humdinger has been elected mayor of Adventure City. A rival candidate dropped out of the race in mysterious circumstances, leaving Humdinger as the only name on the ballot. The newly elected official introduces sweeping changes including three loop-the-loops on the city’s train system.

When rain clouds threaten the fireworks at his victory party, Humdinger and hapless security guards Butch (Randall Park) and Ruben (Dax Shepard) storm the university’s Department of Meteorology and commandeer a Cloud Catcher device belonging to chief scientist Kendra Wilson (Yara Shahidi). “As long as I’m mayor, the sun will always shine on Adventure City,” booms Humdinger. Disaster looms and Ryder and the gang enter the fray, aided by plucky dachshund Liberty (Marsai Martin) from their shiny new headquarters, financed by profits from officially licensed PAW Patrol merchandise. “This stuff sells like hot cakes,” quips Ryder to nods from parents in the audience.

PAW Patrol: The Movie introduces a host of new turbo-charged vehicles that will doubtless feature on children’s Christmas wish lists. Animation holds up to scrutiny on the big screen, including high-tempo action sequences, while the voice cast deliver wholesome life lessons and howls on cue.

Find PAW Patrol: The Movie in the cinemas