Age Shall Not Weary Them
Somehow or other it was in my mind that Tom Courtenay had had a glittering and regular career as one of those fine British actors who appear in a good movie every year or two and assemble a lifetime of great work, much like his contemporaries Albert Finney or Alan Bates. But not really it would seem. The IMDB lists 48 ‘things’ Courtenay has done but a lot are shorts, TV series, telemovies and small parts. More than a few are rather minor and near to or completely unknown, to me at least. There was that wonderful streak of early movies - Private Potter, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Billy Liar and King and Country followed by a series of pictures for which he probably got paid big bucks to be a supporting player (King Rat, Dr Zhivago, The Night of the Generals, The Day the Fish Came Out, A Dandy in Aspic and star turns in the little-known Otley and the worthy One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Then there was another star turn in the title role of The Dresser. I saw Courtenay’s performance in Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser on stage in London , a role he repeated for the film version, and it knocked me over. From then I was once again a total admirer but have had little opportunity to indulge
Courtenay also appeared in Fred Schepisi’s Last Orders and for the first time appeared to be getting old. Which of course, at 64, he was. He’s back again now, completely grey –haired but otherwise in good shape (cf Messrs Finney and the late Bates) in Dustin Hoffman’s Quartet a film made by the BBC’s in-house movie productions which has been round for more than a few weeks. The film also features many old stagers including Maggie Smith, now seemingly permanently riffing off her character in Downton Abbey.
Now I know that after that Marigold Hotel movie, many may not be of a mind to see a lot of aging Brit thespians go round again showing off those unique and finely honed talents for timing and pausing and delivering insulting lines with aplomb. But Courtenay wasn’t in that movie and it’s been more than a little time since someone gave him the chance to be the star turn even in an ensemble piece like this.(Spoiler alert. Chunks of plot to be given away from now on.) It’s Courtenay who has the gravitas and whose part carries the movie.
The film comes from another Ronald Harwood play, adapted by the author himself, from 1999. Alec McCowen played the part of Reggie, which Courtenay takes, on stage. Courtenay is required to transform from a buttoned-up, self-contained once famous opera singer, seemingly content with life in a retirement home for old classical singers and musicians, whose one true love, the singer Jean Horton who was unfaithful to him just before their proposed nuptials, also comes to live in the home. In a series of easy, somewhat sentimental steps, the two re-establish first a friendship then a love and the home’s future is secured by the proceeds of a gala concert at which the pair and two others flawlessly, though we only hear it, again sing the quartet from Rigoletto for which they have long been famous. You can guess it all anyway which means it all comes down to just how much an actor like Courtenay can make you believe in him and his life. Effortlessly he does that.
It’s one of the surely increasing number of movies, not just Marigold Hotel in which we are being asked to see old actors playing parts, starring in movies in fact, that maybe once upon a time, we might have thought way outside likelihood. The American action stars are also at it and it just happened with Arnold Schwarzenegger. He’s chosen to make his comeback in a part written for a forty y o plus person, a small town sheriff who inadvertently has to take on the might of a Mexican drug lord and his team of associates who spring him from custody in Las Vegas and attempt to get him back home.
Money is no object for the drug lord. His team can rustle up variously a giant metal magnet to pluck his car from a convoy of security vehicles, a dozen or so decoys, another dozen or more armed gunmen able to bring huge firepower to any event and a crack team of engineers able to assemble overnight a temporary bridge across the Rio Grande. They also steal the fastest car on earth for him to drive away in (he’s been participating in car races in South America under an assumed name we are told by the inevitably hapless FBI agent supposedly in charge!).
Arnold is now 65+ and admits to feeling old at one stage. But his hair is dyed red and the cheekbones, possibly thanks to surgery, are still chiselled. The body though has become chunky and he makes jokes about his paunch and when he has to run up stairs he does it at barely a trot. But the nod to aging is nowhere near as pronounced as in Quartet. You get the impression that Arnold might think he still has more of this in him. If he does he would be well-advised to stick with the director of The Last Stand, the Korean action man par excellence Kim Jee-woon. It’s Kim who deserves the attention and probably most of the credit for making The Last Stand as good as it is. Or maybe good is too good a word. Effective may be better.
I assume that Kim got the gig because of his film The Good, the Bad, the Weird which I saw in Vancouver in 2008. It was already a huge success in South Korea and it filled up the biggest Granville cinema on three occasions. Its combination of Leone plot, the exotic locale of Manchuria in the 30s, the glee with which the action is choreographed, the twists and turns presented and Kim’s generally extravagant violent spectacle had everybody roaring and happy.
He was a good choice for The Last Stand, a movie which filters itself through Kim’s own penchants for action, the same Leone riffs and many bits and pieces from the classics, most notably Howard Hawks Rio Bravo (the scene in the police lockup where the sheriff assembles his modest gang including the local drunk/boyfriend of the sheriff’s female deputy) and Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (the scene in the middle of town where the gang forms a line for its first assault on the sheriff). The character of Dinkum, the gun supplier and wearer of exotic head covering is straight out of Kim’s own movie!
As background I should also mention that same year at VIFF Tony Rayns programmed a doco called Action Boys, an homage to Korean stunt-men, many of whom earn their precarious living doing the stunts for Kim’s movies. Some of the things they are asked to do seem outrageously dangerous, as testified to by broken necks and lost teeth. Those tendencies are on full display in The Last Stand. The physicality is quite visceral and wince-inducing at times. But Kim’s sense of humour is also on display and the combination makes for something that makes you want some more, if not from the aging Arnold, then certainly from the high-spirited and very accomplished Kim.
Editor's Note: I came across this old post on an earlier iteration of the Film Alert blog. It comes at a time when Kim Jeewoon's latest film is about to open in Australia and presumably many other parts of the known universe. The film has been a huge success in South Korea.