Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Greatest DVD Commentaries Ever (In My Humble Opinion) - Part the Second

Well here we are again with part two of my scholarly analysis of that long-overlooked part of the whole DVD/Blu Ray experience: the audio commentary. Or to be more precise, welcome back as I take a frivolous look back at those particular audio commentaries that for one reason or another have permanently imprinted themselves on my consciousness. So having already covered 'The Thing', 'Capricorn One', 'The Limey' and 'Tropic Thunder' in my previous post, let's move right on to my final four choices - beginning with the Coen Brothers' awesome debut feature...

BLOOD SIMPLE (1984) - Commentary by (ahem) Kenneth Loring, artistic director for Forever Young Film Restoration

Over their three-decade-long careers it's become increasingly obvious that the Coen Brothers don't really enjoy talking about their own movies too much, in most cases simply content to let the work speak for itself. And even when they do grant interviews - admittedly something they've done a lot more of in recent years - they don't seem to give a whole lot away. And so with that in mind it should come as no surprise to learn that they haven't exactly embraced the audio commentary with open arms either - or DVD supplementary features in general, for that matter. No, all that self-analytical navel-gazing clearly isn't their scene, and I'm totally cool with that - especially as so many of my favourite directors (Lynch, Tarantino, Jarmusch, etc) also share the same attitude. 

But the Coens wouldn't be the Coens if they simply left it that and didn't try to take the piss somehow. It's simply not in their DNA. So when it came time for the 20th anniversary DVD release of their bloody neo-noir 'Blood Simple', they decided to really let rip by writing a completely fake audio commentary for the movie, even going as far as hiring the British actor Jim Piddock to read it under the guise of so-called movie historian, Kenneth Loring (of Forever Young Film Restoration - a fictional organization apparently dedicated to preserving 'classic' movies). And a bigger buffoon you will not find anywhere else on the planet.

Which, of course, is the whole point.

The film itself is an ingeniously plotted and remarkably assured debut in which a sleazy bar owner hires a sleazy hitman (see pic above) to murder his cheating wife and her lover, and finds most of the typical Coens' cinematic trademarks and motifs already present and correct (blackmail, black humour, obligatory dream sequence, shoes, hats, etc). But you won't learn any of that from 'Loring', who instead gives us a whole slew of wrong-headed observations, spurious facts and outright lies about the making of the film - such as how Marty's dog isn't real but actually animatronic, or how a fly that that constantly buzzes around one of the characters throughout the film was actually added digitally long after filming was finished. Or how during the planning stages, Fred Astaire and Rosemary Clooney were originally planned to be cast in major roles. That kind of thing.

Since there's no clue on the DVD cover that the commentary is anything but genuine, you do kind of wonder how long it might have taken some listeners to get the joke. Although, to be fair, it does become kind of obvious something's amiss early on when Loring informs us that the opening driving scene was actually flipped and shot in reverse, as well as upside down, 'with the actors securely strapped in so they wouldn't fall up into the roof,' and how all the dialogue was spoken backwards - and that's all within the first couple of minutes. In fact this is one commentary that's probably best listened to without watching the film - otherwise you'll never be able to take it seriously ever again.

'This fellow in the interesting wardrobe is on his way, leaving us with the sad man... leaving him to his thoughts. More chortling as he goes, from the first fellow. Rather a lot of chairs piled up there.'

'And this is the musical moment in the film - un moment musicale - and several shots had to be made so the screen wouldn't go blank while the music played. And these are the shots, so let's admire them.'

'There's the dog again. Wonderful natural motion. You really would never know, would you? Remarkable.'

'More sweat here, very artfully applied. Movie sweat, of course. Not the real thing. Especially gathered from the flanks of Palamino horses.'

'Do watch these footsteps, because these are not the actor's feet. Or rather, it was the actor's feet, but it wasn't, in fact, the floor. The actor was suffering from gout on the day of tournage, and was unable to support his own weight. So the flooring was ripped out and tacked up against the ceiling, then they inverted the actor, hoisted him up and traced his footsteps across the ceiling.'

KISS KISS BANG BANG (2005) - Commentary by Director Shane Black and Actors Val Kilmer & Robert Downey Jr

There he is again. Not content with hogging the first part of this list with his semi-legendary 'Tropic Thunder' commentary, Robert Downey Jr. has the gall to show up for the second part with 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' - but at least for this one he manages to give his ego a rest in order to allow the other two to get their fair share of talk-time. And for that we should be properly thankful, else we'd never get to experience the full Val Kilmer experience.

The film - a great little low-budget action comedy with noir sensibilities - follows petty thief Harry Lockhart (RDJ) after he's mistaken for a jobbing actor and brought to LA for an unlikely audition, only to find himself caught up in a murder investigation with his high-school dream girl (Michelle Monaghan) and 'Gay' Perry (Kilmer), a hotshot PI who's supposed to be training him for this upcoming role that will never happen. As you'd expect from Black, the script is fast and funny and absolutely chock-full of interesting supporting characters, all of whom get their moment in the sun. Oddly enough, at the time of release this was publicised as a kind of 'arthouse' thriller, and as it turns out that's exactly where I saw it. In a tiny cinema in my local arts centre. I remember it got great reviews at the time, but it kind of sunk without trace at the US box office (Black: 'Are you kidding? It made a buck-fifty'), and as a result it kind of slipped in and out of UK multiplexes like a thief in the night. (On the plus side however, it got Shane Black the director's gig for Iron Man 3 after Downey put in a good word with Disney. So, swings and roundabouts, yeah?) 

But one thing I do remember is that upon leaving the cinema, I consciously thought to myself (and no word of a lie here): 'Man, wouldn't it be cool if they got Downey and Kilmer and Black to do a commentary for the DVD when it comes out? I'd love that.' So imagine my joy six months later when I found out that's exactly what they'd done for the DVD release - at least for the region-one version - and even better, that the resulting track more than lived up to my expectations.*

And that's mainly down to Val Kilmer, who lives up to his eccentric reputation by coming out with a whole stream of mostly random non-sequiturs at every opportunity. Things get off to a good start when he decides during the opening credits that he's going to run a name-dropping competition throughout the track with a possible prize of five-hundred bucks to whomever gets them all (RDJ: 'Meanwhile some of the most important contributors to the film's title cards have gone by while you're jacking off over there'), and things kind of devolve from that point onward. All in all, it's an extremely laid-back and good-natured track from three pals who clearly all had a great time shooting the thing, and who thoroughly enjoy taking the piss out of each other for the whole duration of the movie. Also, it's funny.

Black: 'This kid was actually a stunt kid. You have to be in a union to use a chainsaw if you're a kid.'
RDJ: 'Jesus...'
Kilmer: 'And you're so by the book. That's beautiful, that you made that choice.'

Kilmer: 'Frankly, Shane, whenever you dropped the ball Robert picked it up. Never complained, he was always there for you, filling in the blanks. He's like cork to your tile. He's your grout, baby.'

Black informs us that the CG bear in the Genaros Beer ad was voiced by Laurence Fishburne.

During the Hollywood party scene where Downey is getting thoroughly beaten up by an obnoxious guy who almost raped the (unconscious) Michelle Monaghan character, Kilmer asks Black if that was based on a real-life incident. 'Did you threaten a guy once, and then, suddenly, you woke up in an alley?'
Black: 'Not in an alley...' (huge guffaws of laughter)
Kilmer: 'In Denny's.'

(during the electrocution torture scene)
RDJ: 'Whose legs are those?'
Black: 'Those are yours, aren't they?'
RDJ: 'Hell, no.'
Kilmer: 'They're Shane's.'
Black: 'Aren't mine.'
Kilmer: 'You insisted. Admit it. (laughter) I've got an uncropped photograph of you with the electrodes.'

Black: 'For the life of me, I didn't think that people would be able to decipher the geography of this scene.'
Kilmer: 'Who says they did?' (laughter)

RDJ: 'I could cry now because it's almost over. Oh wait, we've got four endings.' (laughter)

* The only other time this has ever happened was when a friend and I went to the flicks to see the terrific Steve Coogan/Rob Brydon comedy, A Cock and Bull Story. Even before the thing was finished we were both thinking ahead to the eventual DVD release & musing on how awesome it would be if Coogan and Brydon got together to do an audio commentary for it. No prizes for guessing how that turned out.

TRUE ROMANCE (1993) - Commentary by Writer Quentin Tarantino

It's a fact that Quentin Tarantino won't do commentaries for any movie that he himself directed, but he will occasionally do them for those movies in which he either has a vested interest or that he simply likes as a fan. For instance, he and Robert Rodriguez sat down for a terrific track for 'From Dusk Til Dawn', a movie Rodriguez directed and Tarantino wrote (and co-starred in, but let's not go there), and he also got together with his friend Edgar Wright to do a cool 'film-geek' track for one of the Hot Fuzz special edition DVDs (and which can actually be found on Youtube). And in addition, he also recorded a track for this: the film version of the first script he ever completed, and directed by none other than his long-time hero, the late Tony Scott.

You've seen the film already so you don't need a detailed plot summary here. Nerd marries hooker and steals coke from her pimp and they go to Hollywood to try to sell it, closely followed by the pimp's employers who want their product back. You know the deal. Except of course it's really the script that matters here, and even in these early stages of QT's career it's clear he was on a roll right from the start. It's a great romance-cum-comedy-cum-thriller that still holds up to repeated viewings today, filled to the brim with so much memorable dialogue and so many meaty supporting roles that major actors of the time were practically lining up to do bit parts (such as Brad Pitt as the unforgettable stoner, Floyd, and who's only actually onscreen for about three or four minutes). 

As for the QT commentary track in question (which is actually only one of four on the disc - and that's not mentioning the additional scene-specific commentaries from most of the actors involved as they discuss their own specific contributions), there's not much to say about it other than it's pretty much what you'd hope a solo QT commentary track would be. That is, the guy starts talking right from the first moment in his trademarked quickfire delivery, and he barely lets five seconds of dead air pass until the end credits. Actually, that's not entirely true. Tarantino makes it clear that he's a huge admirer of how Scott's presented his now infamous 'Sicilian Scene' near the start of the movie ('This scene is one of the proudest moments of my entire career'), and so gives it the respect it deserves by shutting up for a minute and just letting it play out. But that's the only time he does. The rest he's his usual chatterbox self, which is exactly what you want for something like this.

The real shame of it is it's such a great commentary track, you just wish he'd do more.

'When they were making the movie, they had the marquee and everything and they had some weird posters in the display, and some film geek friends of mine were driving by and they went, 'Oh my God, a Streetfighter triple-feature!' And they came in and were told, 'No no we're not showing it, we're making a movie,' and they went, 'Oh, this Quentin's goddamn movie, oh goddamnit.' So they walked away.'

We learn that the 'I'd fuck Elvis' monologue that opens the film was ripped straight from QT's unreleased first movie, 'My Best Friend's Birthday.'

'It's kind of great to see my world in this style, because I don't shoot the way Tony does at all, alright. And I've never in any movie used smoke in a scene, and I don't like it when other people do it, but I love it when Tony does it.'

'When I look at True Romance now, I'm... incredibly moved by my perception of myself, of Clarence, because that was kind of me at twenty-five. While none of this crap ever happened to me it's still very autobiographical nevertheless.'

FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998) - Commentary by Author Hunter S. Thompson and Producer Laila Nabulsi

'Eeeeeeek! Whoooop, yaaaaarrgh, hahrnhaaaaaaa! Where in the FUCK is that remote?'

That's right, you guessed it - it's just another normal evening with the late, great Hunter S. Thompson. Except due to the great foresight of Criterion this one just happens to have been laid down onto disc for posterity. And thank the heavens for that. One of three commentaries on the wonderful Criterion DVD of Terry Gilliam's darkly humourous adaptation of Hunter's 1972 cult 'novel' - wherein a semi-fictional journalist and his large Samoan lawyer take a road trip across the southwest in order to locate 'The American Dream', whilst consuming vast quantities of drugs - this may just go down as the weirdest commentary ever recorded. And for fans of Hunter like myself, it's completely essential listening.

According to the recording engineer, Michael Wiese, (from an email message reproduced on the Criterion website) the track was recorded in Hunter's tiny kitchen one night at his Aspen, Colorado compound: 'The session started about 7.30pm as Hunter was finishing breakfast and I ended up turning off the tape recorders around 2.30am. Very smart and funny man, constantly in motion but never leaving his chair. Cigarette holder and all, he opens his mouth and those words just spill out... I have bite marks on my arm from trying to keep from laughing (I think). It was a sound person's nightmare/fantasy: squawking peacocks, refrigerator motors, thunderstorms, bug zappers, ice machines, phone calls from people in prison, seemingly random bloodcurdling screams, and the general din of vice.'

So as you might imagine this is far from your average DVD commentary track, which is only one of the reasons why I love it so much. The author is also joined by the movie's producer, Laila Nabulsi, who continually attempts to keep Hunter on track, prodding him every now and then to steer the conversation towards topics actually relevant to the movie they're watching. In this she's not always successful, but that's all right. After all, if you really want to know details about the production you can always listen to the other two commentaries (the first is by Gilliam, the other is by the two leads, Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro); they're both pretty good. Hunter's wife/assistant, Anita, can also be heard in the background over the sound of clinking ice cubes or other random noises, occasionally correcting Hunter or adding a detail he neglected to mention.

The most surprising thing to me is that once or twice Hunter makes it clear he actually likes the movie (and even admits to watching it every month), which, given his contrary and generally combative nature towards pretty much everything in life, must be a constant source of amazement to Terry Gilliam. But for the most part he's not afraid to go on tirades about a whole variety of subjects, taking jabs at all and sundry including Gilliam himself (mainly for allowing his onscreen character to make fun of a midget waiter - something that wasn't in the book and that he'd never do in real life), but reserving most of his ire for the late Timothy Leary, whom he absolutely loathes.

Hunter's mumbled speech sometimes makes it hard to decipher what he's saying, and then there are those blood-curdling screams and yelps he makes just to keep everyone on their toes, which makes listening to the track on headphones an almost psychedelic experience in itself. But to be honest, this is a little similar to 'The Limey' DVD track, in that there's so much good stuff here that I could quote lines from it all day, but I'm not going to do that. This post is already getting out of hand as it is. So just buy the Criterion DVD or Bluray instead and experience the glory of Hunter S. Thompson yourself. 

And then mourn the fact that there'll never be another like him.

Nabulsi: 'What about this angel Terry threw in? I've always wanted to know what you thought about the angel with the flaming sword.'
Thompson: 'I never noticed it before.' (laughter) 'Eeeeeeeeeeeh!'

Thompson (chomping on something): 'These radishes are arousing strange instincts in me.' (laughter)

Nabulsi: 'Okay. Circus Circus. What do you think of this scene?'
Thompson: 'That scene sucks.' (laughter) 'Overall. Since you asked.'

Thompson: 'It's a wonderful film. I'd buy two copies of it. And if you're really gonzo you'll buy three.'*

* I believe I did buy three copies, if you include the original cinema ticket along with the video version and then the DVD. So colour me gonzo.

Friday, July 1, 2016

The Greatest DVD Commentaries Ever (In My Humble Opinion) - Part the 1st

Well, it certainly feels as though a few months have passed by since my last blog post, doesn't it... Eh? What's that? Two whole years, you say? No, that can't possibly be right - you're obviously exaggerating, and how many times have I warned you about that? Anyway, pointless dwelling on the past. It's gone. Done. Over with. And I'm here now. Let's move on.

So. Recently I've been listening to a lot of DVD commentaries on my iPod. Not sure why exactly, other than to say I seem to go through these obsessive phases every now and then. For example, a short while back I was listening to a newly-remastered Beach Boys song I'd downloaded from itunes - it was the new crisp, stereo version of the previously muddy-sounding 'Do It Again', where you could finally hear the instruments and heavenly vocals - and the moment it was over I had to listen to it again. And again. And again. God knows how many times I played the damn thing, but it was like a switch had been pressed at the back of my brain, and from that moment on I found myself compelled to listen to the rest of the Beach Boys' back catalogue every spare moment I could get. Hell, I know what I'm like, and so I simply gave in and enjoyed it while it lasted. Of course, after a while this mild compulsion waned enough that I was able to move onto other things, like reading books, eating, sleeping, etc. That is, until my next little fixation inevitably came along and took hold.

And so we come to DVD commentaries, my current preoccupation. Now, being a certified movie buff, it should come as no surprise to anyone that I love audio commentaries. I mean, how could I not? They're such a great concept, and so simple too (originally created by Criterion back in 1984 for their King Kong laserdisc, fact fans). In fact, they're the main reason I invested in my very first Cyberhome DVD player all those years ago. ('Whoa. You mean I can actually switch audio tracks and listen to John Carpenter describing in great detail how he directed 'Assault on Precinct 13' while I'm actually watching the film? As though he's in the same room with me? Like we're two buddies shooting the shit? Say no more, my good man. Here, take my money.') And through the years, as I've assembled a sizeable collection of my favourite movies on shiny disc format, the one special feature I always hope for whenever an old - or new - fave of mine gets a release is an audio commentary. Hopefully a decent one, because believe me, there are a lot of bad ones out there - featuring disinterested participants who'd rather be anywhere else than in a stuffy recording studio, or directors/stars/production-crew-members who still haven't cottoned on that listeners don't really want to hear them describe exactly what's happening on the screen for ninety goddamn minutes. That's what the 'visually-impaired' track is for, forchrissakes. Or worst of all, participants who are either deathly dull (hello, Tim Burton) or those who say so little over the course of the film that you wonder why they bothered showing up at all (I'm speaking to you, Rob Reiner).

But the good commentary tracks? Ah, they're to be prized. And to be listened to more than once. In fact the really good ones can almost be treated like entities unto themselves - you know, like an audiobook - where you don't even need to be watching the movie to enjoy it. And these are the ones I've been listening to on my iPod lately. The good ones. Such as...

THE THING (1982) - Commentary by Director John Carpenter & Actor Kurt Russell

Ah, 'The Thing' - one of my very favourite movies from one my very favourite genre directors. I was fortunate enough to see this at the flicks when it first came out - with my best friend at the time - and I recall us both emerging exhausted from the cinema two hours later, completely blown away at how good the film was. It's only gotten better with time. Made over thirty-five years ago, the movie's barely aged a day and I find I can still rewatch it every few years without getting bored. From the smooth, unhurried direction to the great special effects (which still hold up) to the ensemble acting, to the wonderfully atmospheric Ennio Morricone score, everything about the film works.

Unless you've been hiding in a cave you probably know the story already. It's an old one, based on the classic Ten Little Indians premise (see also 'Alien'). This time, a ragtag group of misfits working in a remote Antarctic scientific base find themselves infiltrated by a parasitic alien lifeform that's able to assimilate other organisms and imitate them perfectly (see dog above). Or almost perfectly. As the body count rises, so does the paranoia amongst the remaining survivors. Much blood is spilled. Things don't end well.

Now 'The Thing' was one of the very first DVDs I ever bought - if not the very first - and I still consider it one of the best in my collection. And it's not hard to see why. I mean, not content with including an excellent documentary ('Terror Takes Shape') that's almost as long as the movie itself, the makers go one better by chucking in a fantastic commentary track that's since become a mainstay in every one of those 'DVD Commentaries You Must Hear' lists. Like this one. And the reason for that is ridiculously simple. Want to know what it is? It's this:

John Carpenter. And Kurt Russell. In a room together.

That's it. That simple formula is all you need to make a great commentary track. The two had already proved it once before this with the 'Escape From New York' laserdisc (since transported to the DVD version), and they also proved it again a couple of years after this when they reunited for the hilarious 'Big Trouble in Little China' DVD commentary. But the track for 'The Thing' is still the tops in my book, and most everybody else's, it seems. Right from the start it's obvious that the two are friends of long standing who thoroughly enjoy getting together again to reminisce over old times, and they enjoy a great rapport throughout. It also helps that neither man is afraid to take the piss out of the other at the slightest opportunity, and the good-natured ribbing is often accompanied by Russell's distinctive, and highly infectious, laughter. No other way to put it, this often hilarious yet hugely informative track is simply a joy to listen to. For example:

(During the autopsy scene)
Carpenter: 'We're about to cut to one of the delicious shots that the audience was repulsed by. Basically what you have is a kind of rubber creature where Brimley reaches in and pulls out some fresh liver (laughs). Brimley, having been a real cowboy, had no problem and was trying to tell us what it's like to...
Russell: 'He's just skinning a deer there.' (laughs)
Carpenter: 'That's it.' (laughs) 'That's basically all there is. Look at how he sells it, he kind of squishes it around (raucous laughter) brings it out...'
Russell: 'Attaboy, Will!'

Carpenter: 'One of the reviews at the time called me a 'Pornographer of Violence' (laughter from both) which really made me have second thoughts about my career.'

Carpenter: 'We're really going to blow this whole place to smithereens now. And now, in comes a tractor, with someone who looks a lot like you driving it (laughter from Russell) Kaboom! as it goes through the stage floor...'

We learn that not only was it an all-male cast, but an all-male crew too. There was a female script supervisor for awhile, but she was heavily pregnant at the time and had to return home partway into the shoot. (Although not mentioned on the commentary there is a very brief female presence in the movie: the voice of MacReady's chess computer at the start - supplied by Adrienne Barbeau, Carpenter's wife at the time. She wins, by the way.)

A beautiful half-wolf/half-husky named Jed plays The Thing in its early stages (again, see photo above) and Carpenter and Russell are still in awe at how great he is during the scene where he strolls along an empty corridor calmly checking rooms as he seeks out his next victim, without once looking at the camera. And all in one continuous thirty-second take too. Carpenter: 'Here comes the dog, this is quite an amazing shot. He's doing this all by himself. The dog hesitates at the door... he looks in... he stops... he checks out somebody in the other room. He pauses... then moves, doesn't look at us, as we pull back... Then he stops and stares... and goes in. Amazing work for an animal.'

We also learn that not only did they make up the ambiguous ending pretty much on the day, but Kurt Russell himself came up with the perfect last line. Nice one, Kurt.

CAPRICORN ONE (1977) - Commentary by Director Peter Hyams

Okay, let's get the obvious out of the way first. Capricorn One is not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, and Peter Hyams sure ain't no Kubrick, but who cares? The movie's been a fave of mine since I first saw it on VHS (remember VHS?) when I was but a callow youth of indeterminate age. Call it a guilty pleasure if you must. Except I never feel guilty about liking something, so scratch that. No, what we have here is a cracking little 'seventies conspiracy thriller about a faked mission to Mars, featuring Elliot Gould in his prime as a tenacious reporter trying to get to the truth, while evil NASA agents in helicopters chase after the three escaped astronauts in question (James Brolin, Sam Waterson, OJ Simpson) before they can reach civilization and spill the beans. Let's face it, you've probably seen it on TV so you know the story already. And while the film doesn't have the most believable of plots, it still moves along at a great pace, is accompanied by an awesome Jerry Goldsmith score, and the script is smart and funny, and the cast (including small supporting roles for the lovely Karen Black as a rival reporter, and Telly Savalas as an ill-tempered crop-duster pilot) are great value.

So when I learned a while back that Hyams had provided a commentary for the US Special Edition DVD of the movie (Region 1 only, folks), I felt compelled to go online immediately and snap up a copy for myself. And I'm so glad I did. The erudite and droll Hyams is a pleasure to listen to, and somehow manages to keep talking for almost the entire film, only occasionally lapsing into silence if a particular scene takes him by surprise by being better than he remembered. He's also surprisingly self-deprecating ('I'm somebody who doesn't think he's the best director even on my street, much less the world.'), engagingly honest ('It's kind of impossible to look at this and see O.J. and not get a certain amount of chills, knowing what he did later') and supplies a plethora of behind-the-scenes info that even I'd never heard before, such as the fact that the rattler Brolin kills and eats in the movie was a prepared carcass that had been cleaned and filled with the rawest of raw fish, then sewn up again so Brolin could cut it open on camera ('No snake was killed in the making of this film,' Hyams assures us. 'That snake was already dead, I promise you.'). And the blood was honey with red dye. Jesus. One can't help thinking that eating actual dead snake might have been tastier.

He also finds time to disclose one or two amusing factoids that had never occurred to me at all, such as: 'Some directors have won lifetime achievement awards. Some have won multiple Oscars. But I think I'm the only director who had two leading men formally charged with the first-degree murder of their wives.' (The other one's Robert Blake, in case you're wondering). Later, he confesses that he also holds the dubious honour of being the only director to make a movie - this one - where the two lead roles are played by Barbara Streisand's husbands. Bet you didn't know that, huh?

But the absolute best quote on the track comes when a parched OJ Simpson's in the desert looking desperately for water while the bad guys close in. After describing how he applied spots of glue to Simpson's face to double as sun blisters while also restricting his facial movements - and thus preventing any possibility of overacting in the scene - Hyams ends with the immortal words, 'Amazing how a little glue can sometimes make an actor better.'

Words to live by, Peter. Words to live by.

TROPIC THUNDER (2009) - Commentary by Director/Actor Ben Stiller & Actors Robert Downey Jr and Jack Black

When you think of in-character commentaries (assuming you think about them at all, that is, which seems unlikely), the track that immediately springs to mind has to be the one on 'This is Spinal Tap' featuring the three main cast members as the Tap, still as gloriously dumb as ever, and mostly bemoaning how bad Marty di Bergi made them look in the 'rockumentary' ('All the times that we found the stage with no problem - why show this one?'). And, yes, it's a delicious side-dish to one of the funniest films ever made. But in my opinion there's another in-character track that tops even that for laughs, and that's the one for the recent comedy, Tropic Thunder, starring Stiller, Black and Downey Jr. Except in truth, it only partly qualifies, as Stiller and Black are most definitely not in character during the track... um...

See, in the movie, which purports to recount the filming of a hugely expensive Vietnam War epic that goes terribly wrong, one of the main characters is a ridiculously talented Australian method actor named Kirk Lazarus (Downey Jr) who's playing a black character named Sergeant Lincoln Osiris in the film-within-the-film, even going to the lengths of undergoing pigmentation surgery to darken his skin, and adopting a gravelly bass African-American voice at all times. Known for being deadly serious about his craft, Lazarus even says at one point, 'I don't break character til I done the DVD commentary.' Now Downey Jr obviously thought that was too good an opportunity to ignore when it came time to record the actual commentary track for the Thunder DVD, and so does the whole thing as 'the dude playing the dude disguised as another dude'. Throughout, Ben Stiller does his best to provide us with some genuine info regarding the actual making of the movie, while Jack Black constantly apologises for being late and chips in whenever he can with some cool character stuff, but this is essentially 'The Robert Downey Jr. Show' and they all know it. And so they quite wisely just sit back and let him roll with it for the rest of the movie.

Humour's totally subjective, of course, and the listener's enjoyment of the track will kind of depend on a) how much he/she liked the movie, and b) how funny he/she finds Downey Jr's improvisational skills. But as far as I'm concerned, what could have been a tiresome one-joke gag ends up as an absolute riot and often had me laughing more than the film itself. Even better, when the Osiris character switches back to Lazarus later in the movie, Downey Jr switches to that character's Australian voice in the commentary, only giving in and switching back to his own voice during the end credits.

Now that's meta.

Stiller: 'This scene actually went really smoothly, I thought, when we shot it. You guys had a really good rhythm going with each other.'
RDJ: 'Yeah, and we only did like sixty, seventy, ninety takes o' this. Fuck! (laughter) 'Member when you had him smack me all goddamn day, Ben? I 'member like it was fuckin' yesterday.'

Stiller: 'This was a fun scene to shoot.'
RDJ: 'Was it? (laughter) I was there, and I don't remember it as such.'
Stiller: 'How do you remember it?'
RDJ: 'As unadulterated torture. (more laughter) Oh, here I come, though. Everybody shut up.'

Stiller: 'I love that that we've actually accepted Robert in this voice for the whole commentary. And again, I find myself strangely liking this guy more than the real Robert.'

RDJ: 'You was all over him about the knittin' and how to make the knittin' look a certain way. You were fuckin' up his head that day, man. I don't know how he made it. You toxic motherfucker. (laughter) Damn, you wouldn't let it go. 'Cut. Back to one. Get the thread up. Doesn't look like you're threadin' the needle'. And, like, you don't even give a fuck in this scene. Man, you was trippin' on him.'

Black: 'One time I heard the commentary for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Did you ever listen to that? With Ang Lee and, like, the head writer or...?'
RDJ: Hold on, man. You show up here tardy, and now you're talkin' about another fuckin' commentary?' (laughter)

THE LIMEY (1999) - Commentary by Director Steven Soderbergh & Writer Lem Dobbs

Oh, I do love this movie. In fact I think it might be Soderbergh's best, which is really saying something. Granted, the basic revenge plot (Brit gangster, fresh from long prison term, goes to America to get to the bottom of his estranged daughter's death) is about as thin as a bible page, and on the surface the low-budget film seems like an excuse for the filmmakers to play a modern-day riff on such classic crime movies like 'Get Carter' and 'Point Blank'. But there's so much more to it than that. With its heavy nods to the sixties, and its fractured non-linear narrative and wickedly witty script, Soderbergh instead gives us an almost touching meditation on regret and loss and bad choices and missed chances, all wrapped up in a gorgeous modern-day sun-drenched noir package. In this, he's aided greatly by Terence Stamp, who gives a fantastic performance as the single-minded Wilson, and there's some sterling support from other '60s icons such as Peter Fonda, Barry Newman and Lesley Ann Warren, amongst others.

Similar to other modern auteur directors, such as David Fincher and David Cronenberg, Soderbergh chose to embrace DVD commentaries from the very beginning and has not only provided comprehensive tracks for many of his own movies, but has even appeared on tracks for films by other directors (such as John Boorman's 'Point Blank'). As Soderbergh said in one interview: 'The key is to never do them alone.' And so for this one he takes his own advice and gets together with his primary collaborator on the movie, cranky screenwriter Lem Dobbs - who, it quickly becomes apparent, is not afraid to speak his mind ('I'll say, in your defence and mine, that screenwriting is a hopeless profession') and berate Soderbergh for some of the directorial choices he made. It's sometimes a testy affair, to be sure, but it's also obvious that this isn't a new experience for them and they clearly both enjoy needling each other whenever possible. It's that kind of relationship. But as far as I'm concerned, honesty is always preferable to false pats on the back, and it's clear that Soderbergh (who remains fairly good-humoured and unruffled for the most part) feels the same way.

But not content with that, Soderbergh then decided to take things that little bit further by editing the track until it matched the fragmentary nature of the film itself, in order to throw the listener off his/her guard whenever he/she least expects it. So, like the movie itself, the first minute of the commentary becomes a fragmented preview of what we can expect over the course of the next ninety minutes. 'We are rolling,' a sound engineer says, which is then followed by seemingly random snippets of heated dialogue between director and writer. Finally, the recording shuts off and then we start again, for real this time. But later on there are still instances where the audio is double-tracked, then sped up, and snippets are edited back and forth to mimic the fractured narrative of the movie. It's really well done, and it quickly becomes clear that Soderbergh has put a lot of thought into making the track as interesting as possible, and that's something I really appreciate.

Soderbergh: 'Now here's a scene a lot of people have commented upon, which you indicated very clearly in the script, that the camera stays outside as Wilson goes in. Because this is so much more interesting, to see him come out with the blood on his face.'
Dobbs: 'Well, yeah, tell me about it. I've read enough reviews that have praised the bravura direction - most notably that motherfucker in Variety - yeah, the brilliant direction of Steven Soderbergh. But that was one of the examples of a detail in the script that you actually directed that way. Thank you very much.'

Dobbs: 'When I read reviews that say 'style over substance' I blame you. I can't actually say they're wrong.'

Dobbs: 'It's your fetishist nature, and you want it to be very clear that there's a side street there, but you don't want any back-story for the human relationships or characters, but - goddammit - people are going to know there's a second way down that hill.'
Soderbergh: 'Yeah, I like knowing where people are. I don't care who they are. I just want to know where they are.'

Dobbs: 'I should say I hate this scene too. This Tarantino/Barry Levinson 'Whaddaya mean? I don't... What's a sliding scale?' I don't get it.
Soderbergh: 'I'm trying to develop character here.'
Dobbs: 'Ha! I can certainly do without that scene. Which I didn't write... Did I?'

Soderbergh remarks that the movie is 'a series of duos. Everyone has their sidekick. Terence Stamp has Luis Guzman, and Peter Fonda has Barry Newman. And then there are these two goonish hitmen.'

Dobbs: 'David Lean once said, "Never pop out the same hole twice."'
Soderbergh: 'Yeah, he was noted for his short films.'

To be honest it would be easy to carry on quoting gems like this, but since it's all like this I'd only end up transcribing the entire commentary and I have to end this somewhere.

On a related note, I should add that this is actually only the first of two commentaries on the DVD. The second one - featuring Terence Stamp, Peter Fonda, Lesley Ann Warren, Barry Newman and Joe Dallesandro, all seemingly pieced together from interview segments, plus further comments by Soderbergh and Dobbs - is actually labelled a '60s docu-commentary' and rarely touches on scenes in the film at all. Instead the actors - and Stamp and Fonda, in particular - give us some insight into their lives and careers during the sixties and how much of themselves they put into their onscreen personae, while touching on the actual culture of the decade as they remember it. It's one of those rare commentaries that seems to have been purposely designed to be listened to on its own, and is really fascinating stuff. All in all, a highly recommended disc.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Okay. Now I had about eight or nine commentary tracks I wanted to discuss, and while I originally planned to cover them all in a single blog post I can see that was nothing but wishful thinking on my part. As usual things got a little out of hand and what was intended to have been a simple, one-paragraph, capsule review for each commentary turned into something a little more in-depth and convoluted. So I think what I'll do is cut this short right here and then cover the rest of my choices in part two, which should be ready in a week or two. 

So do check back, and I'll see y'all soon.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

New Short Story Cover

A while back, my lovely editor at Headline sent me a copy of the stunning new cover art for the next Bishop eShort, THE RIGHT WAY, but I had to wait awhile before I could reveal it in all it's glory. Well, that time is now! So without further ado, feast your eyes on this...

Pretty damn cool, don't you think? I really love the style those design whizzes at Headline have gone for with my recent Bishop tales, and this one's no exception. I really dig the wild, almost psychedelic, colours in this particular cover. We've got yellow, cyan, orange, and even a little bit of green in there. Great stuff.

Anyway, the story is set for release later this year and as you can see from the image, most of it's set within the confines of a bi-level commuter train. I have to admit I've been dying to use this classic train setting for a long time, and in THE RIGHT WAY I finally found a way to do it to my satisfaction. And hopefully, yours too. 

Watch for it.

Monday, April 28, 2014

My Writing Process – Blog Tour

So recently I was contacted through Twitter by fellow author Steve Cavanagh, who asked if I'd like to take part in a blog-tour with a difference. The way it was explained to me made it kind of sound like a version of tag-team wrestling, but without all the sweat and violence. What happens is writers are invited to use their own blogs to answer four specific questions about their working habits - after which the blogger tags the next authors on the list, who proceed to do the same thing a week later on their own sites, who then tag further authors in the process. And so on, and so on. It sounded like an interesting new wrinkle on the whole blog-tour scenario, so naturally I said I was more than happy to get involved.

And so here we are.

But before we start I want to give a shout-out to Steve Cavanagh, who's a practising solicitor from Belfast and whose debut novel - a New York-based legal thriller called THE DEFENSE, starring former con-artist turned defence lawyer Eddie Flynn - is set for release through ORION around Spring of next year. The whole concept sounds pretty damn intriguing and I'm really looking forward to reading it when it comes out. (Any chance you can bring the publication date forward a little, Steve, so I don't have to wait a full year? Thanks.) You can also read Steve's own contribution to this blog-tour here.

Anyway, without further ado, let's turn to my responses to the four questions in question. And the first is:

1. What am I working on?

I've just finished the second draft of a new James Bishop novella - titled THE RIGHT WAY - and once I've read through the manuscript again to make sure there are no glaring errors, I'll be sending it off to my editor to get her views on it. The first Bishop eShort, ONE GOOD TURN, was only released a few weeks ago and I'm currently gearing up for the release of the second one, THE LAST QUARTER, in a few days - May the 1st, to be precise. And then a month after that, we've got the hardcover publication of my third Bishop novel, THE HUNTER'S OATH.

As far as actual writing goes, I'm just about to get going on the fourth James Bishop novel - and while there's no actual title yet, I already know what's in store for the poor guy. Thing is, I was actually planning to start writing it last year, but then my publishers approached me with the idea of creating these short stories and novellas to compliment the release of the full-length works, so naturally they took precedence. Fortunately, I was so ahead of schedule at the time that it was no problem to postpone work on the novel and work on those instead. But now, with the first wave of shorts completed (see above), I'm free to get back to the book.

Fortunately most of it's already plotted out, so once I've gone through my extensive notes to catch up on everything, I should - theoretically, at least - be able to open up my saved Word document, type in those two words 'Chapter One' and get cracking.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Well, when I originally came up with my lead character, I knew I wanted to play with the lone-wolf archetype as they were the characters I gravitated towards most as a reader, but I also knew I had to make Bishop stand out from the rest of the pack in some way (not sure that metaphor works when discussing a lone wolf, but never mind). Now I've been a major fan of Richard Stark's Parker series for as long as I can remember, and while I didn't want a full-blown criminal like Parker for my lead, I did want someone with the same distrust and dislike of the law. All too often these days, I'm reading books with cops or ex-cops as the main protagonists - and even if they're not directly connected with the police, they seem to be on at least good enough terms with them that they can co-opt their help without too much effort.

Bishop isn't like that. For a number of reasons, he prefers to have as little to do with the law as humanly possible.

One of those reasons is shown at the beginning of THE WRONG MAN, where he spends part of the story behind bars for another man's crime - something he feels could have easily have been avoided had the detectives on the case done a more thorough job. That's just one example, although I've also hinted that his ambivalence towards law enforcement officials goes back a long way and is a lot more deep-rooted. Maybe I'll go into it in more detail in a future novel. Maybe not. However, there are exceptions to the rule. There's a suspended cop in BACKTRACK with whom Bishop got on fine, for example, and there's also a certain female US Marshal he'd throw a bucket of water over if he saw her on fire on the sidewalk, but for the most part Bishop prefers to steer clear of the police as much as possible and go his own way.

3. Why do I write what I do?

Simple answer? I write the kinds of books I want to read myself. From an early age I've always loved reading thrillers and suspense novels, and for some reason the ones I tended to like most were usually American (all those wide open vistas!). And like a lot of readers, I've always had a soft spot for series characters as well. There's nothing better than finishing a great book with a memorable leading character and discovering the author wrote a bunch more featuring the same person.

So with all that in mind, I purposely set out to create in Bishop an American hero (or anti-hero, to be more precise) whom I could put into a wide variety of situations, and who was enigmatic enough that the reader would be willing to follow him from story to story in order to discover what makes him tick. Hopefully I've succeeded. Time will tell.

4. How does your writing process work?

You know, I've read plenty of interviews where authors are asked the same question and often they say they never plot anything out - that they simply sit down in front of the computer and start writing and see what happens. And I have to admit I'm kind of envious, because I could never use that approach. Not in a million years. My mind simply doesn't work that way; I'm far too methodical a person (as is Bishop). So while I admit there's a lot of spontaneity in the writing of a novel, I prefer to plot the main points of the story out before I actually put pen to paper, or fingertip to keypad, so I've got some idea of what's ahead.

Anyway, with me it works like this:

At the start I generally sit down at my workdesk with a new A5-sized notebook and my trusty Parker pen, and begin thinking of plot ideas, along with possible characters and themes, mixed in with plenty of research. And I write notes. Lots and lots and lots of notes. Usually in the form of bullet points. At this point in the game, I'm essentially using the notebook to brainstorm with myself, so when a particularly foolish idea drips onto the page the next bullet point will likely be a harsh, 'This idea's about as dumb as a box of socks. Think smarter!But that's okay. Every single idea and every single thought, no matter how stupid, gets put down on paper without fail. I've learnt that you never know when an old idea you'd discarded might come in handy later on.

Gradually, over the course of a month, sometimes longer, a fairly detailed plot begins to emerge and then I transfer the good stuff onto post-it notes - one post-it per chapter - and stick 'em on the wall in front of my desk. Except for the last dozen or so chapters. Those I purposely leave very vague, so that other than the major plot twists, I only know how the book's actually going to end when I reach that part of the manuscript. 

Hey, I like to have my cake and eat it, okay?

So now I get started on the actual writing of the first draft, and this generally takes me about four months. I stick to a fairly rigid timetable of 1000 words a day, every day, seven days a week, until the first draft's done. Then I take a week away from it before going back to do a second draft. This usually takes me about a month, sometimes a little less. Then, once I feel I've done my absolute best I send the revised manuscript on to my agent and my editor and patiently await their verdicts.

And while I wait, I start thinking about out the next project. Because there's always a next project.

So that's it from me. For now, at least. If you want to see who else is on the tour, you can head on over to Twitter and type in #mywritingprocess and that'll give you some idea. And don't forget, next Monday be sure to visit the sites of these two fine fellows and see what have to say about their own working methods:

Nick Quantrill

Nick Quantrill was born and raised in Hull, an isolated industrial city in the north east of England. His Joe Geraghty crime novels - BROKEN DREAMS, THE LATE GREATS, and THE CROOKED BEAT - are published by Caffeine Nights. A prolific short story writer, Nick's work has appeared in various volumes of 'The Mammoth Book of Best British Crime.' You can find him at, and you can also follow him through Twitter @NickQuantrill.

J.T. Brannan

J.T. Brannan is the author of high-concept action thrillers STOP AT NOTHING (Amazon Bestseller - Political Thrillers), ORIGIN (translated into eight languages in over thirty territories) and EXTINCTION (his latest all-action novel), as well as the sci-fi action short story DESTRUCTIVE THOUGHTS.

Trained as a British Army officer at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst before deciding to pursue a writing career, he is also a former national Karate champion and bouncer. He now writes full-time and teaches martial arts in Harrogate, in the north of England, where he lives with his wife and two young children. He is currently working on the second novel in the Mark Cole series. You can find him at, and, on Twitter @JTBrannan_, and on Facebook at jtbrannanbooks.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014



Since my last post, I've learned from my publisher that THE LAST QUARTER eShort has been put back a month and is now due to be released on May 1st. But be sure to keep the 1st of April marked in your diaries because my FREE James Bishop short story - ONE GOOD TURN - is being released that day instead.

That's right. FREE. As in 'No Money.' How cool is that?

And what's more, I'm now allowed to post the excellent, super-cool new covers to not only ONE GOOD TURN, but THE HUNTER'S OATH as well.

Just take a look at these babies:

Both pretty fantastic, I think you'll agree. Those designers at Headline have really hit the ball out of the park this time.

Anyway, the links are now up at Amazon, allowing you to pre-order the stories is you so wish. ONE GOOD TURN is here, THE LAST QUARTER is here, and THE HUNTER'S OATH can be found here.

Friday, February 21, 2014

New Short Story Cover

I know, I know, I've been lax in the blog-writing department lately. But it can't be helped. Lately my time's been taken up with writing various short tales featuring the main man, James Bishop, and that kind of thing takes precedence over the blog, I'm afraid. Now the first one to be released is called THE LAST QUARTER and it's due for publication in eBook format on April 1st.

No, that's not a premature April Fool's joke. It's really coming out on that day.

And that's not all. I've got another Bishop short story in the bank called ONE GOOD TURN, which will probably follow very soon after, and then we've got the third Bishop novel - THE HUNTER'S OATH - coming out at the beginning of June. And still that's not all. Later in the year will be a longer Bishop novella, and I'm currently putting the finishing touches to that one right now. So however you look at it, there sure won't be any shortage of Bishop this year.

Anyway, those wonderful guys and gals at Headline have already come up with some super-cool covers to THE LAST QUARTER, ONE GOOD TURN, and THE HUNTER'S OATH, and while I'm not authorised to post the latter two just yet, I can reveal the cover for the first one. So here it is:

Pretty cool, huh? Just wait till you see the other two - they're even better.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Great 'Forgotten' Thrillers: DESPERATE MEASURES by David Morrell

For better or worse, author David Morrell will forever be known as the man who created John Rambo, one of the central cultural touchstones of that decade we all love to hate - the gung-ho 'eighties. Doesn't matter that First Blood - actually written in 1972 - was the only book of his to feature the disturbed Viet Nam veteran (if you don't count the movie tie-in adaptations Morrell penned for the sequels which I don't), it's Rambo who he'll be best remembered for, regardless of the two dozen novels he's written since. Which is kind of a shame as there are some real doozies tucked away in his bibliography, and some of them quite recent.

Now I have to say I've never been much of a fan of Morrell's 'eighties output, which, along with the aforementioned movie adaptations, seemed to consist of interchangeable conspiracy thrillers with titles like The Fraternity of the Stone, or The Brotherhood of the Rose, or The Something of the Something Else. I tried a couple back in the day - no idea which ones - and didn't come away all that impressed. But then in 1990 Morrell came out with the highly entertaining bodyguard thriller, The Fifth Profession, and it was at that point that Morrell seemed to really hit his stride. For the rest of the decade he produced one high quality thriller after another, and all with catchy two-word titles like Assumed Identity, Extreme Denial, Double Image, and Burnt Sienna. And right in the middle of this run, in 1994, came Desperate Measures.

The story starts off intriguingly enough with a deeply depressed man planning his own death. Matt Pittman is an ex-current affairs journalist for the Chronicle whose life has gone steadily downhill since the death of his 12-year-old son from bone cancer seven years before. His wife's left him, he's on the verge of alcoholism, and instead of reporting on current events, he's now relegated to writing obituaries. Or he would be had he not already quit. By the time the story begins he's finished settling all his affairs and is preparing to end it all with a bullet in his brain. However, just as he's about to pull the trigger the phone rings. And keeps ringing until Pittman gets out of the bathtub and answers the damn thing.

It's his editor, Burt, at the Chronicle, who explains that the paper's bankrupt and is to close in a week. And with most of the staff out looking for new jobs he asks Pittman, as a favour to him, to lend a helping hand in the obituary department for its last few days. Feeling that he owes Burt for his kindness during his son's illness, Pittman puts his suicide on hold and goes back to work, temporarily. And his first assignment is to write an obituary of a man who isn't actually dead yet, but will be soon: Jonathan Millgate, one of the 'Grand Counsellors' - five patrician diplomats who've helped manipulate US government policy behind the scenes for decades. But in the process of researching the man's history, Pittman comes across some sensitive information that causes Millgate's death and he soon finds himself on the run for murder. Chased by the police and any number of professional assassins, Pittman gradually comes back to life again as his old reporter instincts kick in and he decides to find out for himself why so many people are desperate to kill a man who wanted to die anyway...

With Desperate Measures, Morrell has constructed an entertaining 'ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances' conspiracy thriller, only with an extremely sympathetic character in the lead role. Right from the first paragraph, the reader is on Pittman's side as we learn how he's determined to exit the world with the minimum amount of disruption to his neighbours. Which means sitting in his bathtub with the shower curtain pulled across to keep the mess down, and arming his 9mm automatic with a single bullet to ensure whoever finds his body won't be picking up a loaded gun. I ask you - how can you not warm to a person who's that considerate to his fellow man?

Actually, it's a good thing Morrell does make Pittman so appealing as the narrative stays with him for the entire novel, despite it being written in third-person. Which is interesting. As an author myself, I'm always paying close attention to how other writers construct their narratives and upon reading the book again I think Morrell was wise to avoid the obvious first-person POV here. It's a great narrative device that instantly allows the reader to connect with the story's main character, but the downside is you take away some of the suspense since the narrator can only be relating their story if they ultimately survive. So in Desperate Measures (as with the previously reviewed 'Nothing Lasts Forever') we get the best of both worlds, with a third-person limited perspective that allows the reader to empathise totally with Pittman without knowing for sure whether he'll still be breathing by the end of the book. So, win-win.

And it's a very fast-paced story too. With First Blood, Morrell quickly proved himself a master of the chase thriller and he constructs another variation on that theme here. We get to know Pittman and why he is the way he is, then Morrell drops the poor guy straight into the shit and by page 60 he's already running for his life. And despite spending much of his time trying to find out why everybody wants him dead, he basically doesn't stop running for the rest of the book. It also helps that Morrell divides the novel into small bite-sized chapters (usually between 2-5 pages in length), which, along with the terse no-nonsense prose, really helps the pages fly by.

But therein lies part of the problem. Morrell's decision to make this a pure adrenalin-rush of a novel with everything moving moving moving means he falls prey to one of the worst cliches of the genre. And I'm not referring to the introduction of Julia, the requisite romantic interest who's brought into the storyline about a third of the way in, either (Morrell actually handles the burgeoning relationship between the two of them in a nice low-key manner). No, I'm talking about how anytime Pittman and Julia visit another vital character or witness, the interview is almost always cut short by the arrival of either the police or a cadre of armed bad guys desperate to kill them all. Usually the latter. There then follows another fierce gun battle and/or a tense escape, whereupon our heroes lick their wounds and try again with the next person on their list. And this basically happens all the time.

Now there's nothing wrong with having the book's villains one or two steps behind the leads in a chase thriller - that's what makes it a chase thriller, after all - but it gets to a point in this one where the reader's waiting for the bad guys to show up at the door, which they invariably do, and that's really not good for a suspense novel. There's that famous line of Raymond Chandler's where he said that anytime you're at a loss have a man enter the scene with a gun - but I'm pretty sure he didn't mean keep on doing it. There's such a thing as overkill even in a formula thriller such as this, and an experienced author such as Morrell really should know better. And then there's the whole final act, which could have been structured a lot better. As it stands there's just too much exposition to explain away the previous 400 pages, and it's all stuff that really should have been rationed out in smaller doses beforehand.

But to be honest, it's really the character of Matt Pittman - rather than the plot - which makes this book stand out for me. As a man who's got nothing left to live for, at least at the beginning of the story, Morrell does a really excellent job in bringing the man's anguish to life on the page so that the reader can totally empathise with his situation. And this is perhaps not too surprising once you learn Morrell lost his own son to bone cancer in the late eighties, so it's clear the author is exorcising a few demons of his own in this one. There's a telling passage early on, for example, where you wonder if Morrell is actually describing himself during his darkest periods:

     So he went home. Rather than take a taxi, he walked. He needed to fill the time. As dusk increasingly chilled him, he stopped for several drinks - to fill the time. The elevator to his third-floor apartment creaked and wheezed. He locked himself in his apartment, heard laughter from a television show vibrate through thin walls from the apartment next to him, and had another drink.
     To fill the time.
     He sat in darkness.

Not a bad little passage that - just a pity there isn't more like it in the book. But that said, Desperate Measures still remains one of my favourites of David Morrell's, and if you enjoy a good thriller with a hero who's a little different from the rest, I'd say it's definitely worth a look.

** On a final note, there's a film called Desperate Measures that was made in 1998, which as far as I'm aware has no official connection to the novel - there's certainly no mention of David Morrell in the credits, and the plot is admittedly very different. However, a major plot device in the movie has cop Andy Garcia frantically searching for a compatible bone marrow donor for his 12-year old son. Who's dying of leukemia.

Now call me cynical, but that strikes me as a little more than coincidental. And the only time I've ever seen Morrell mention it is in an interview where he said the book was 'not to be confused with the wretched movie of the same name.' Now I sense a certain amount of anger in that statement, which makes me think that the moviemakers simply decided to lift various plot points from the book - not to mention the title itself - without actually paying Morrell for the screen rights. Which, if true, sounds pretty underhanded, even for Hollywood.