Out of the Ashes

Pier group: Michael Caine, Bob Hoskins, Tom Courtenay and David Hemmings in Last Orders

Movies have always been rampant with buddies, but most of the time we have to accept their camaraderie on faith. The lifelong friends in Fred Schepisi’s marvelous Last Orders actually seem like lifelong friends. Michael Caine, Tom Courtenay, David Hemmings, Ray Winstone, and Bob Hoskins appear genuinely pleased to be in one another’s company, and they use that pleasure to enrich their roles. This is the difference between the latter-day Rat Packers in Ocean’s Eleven and a dedicated ensemble of artists. The actors here are so extraordinarily adept at portraying the silences and exultations of their characters that the film becomes a kind of ode to comradeship, one unblinkered by cant or sentimentality. When these men stand together, they’re bonded as much by regret as by love; they wanted to be more than they are.

Schepisi, adapting the 1996 Graham Swift novel, elegantly balances everyone’s stories, even though the narrative is fragmented by flashbacks. A great unity of emotion pervades Last Orders. In the beginning, four men gather in a pub in East London to carry out the final request of the recently deceased Jack (Caine), who spent his life as a butcher in the shop his father owned before him. Jack requested that his ashes, which sit before the men in a box on the bar, be scattered off the pier in the Kentish seaside town of Margate. What follows is an odyssey that’s part pub crawl and part day of reckoning.

As the men make their way through the countryside in a sleek Mercedes, stopping along the way at the Chatham War Memorial and Canterbury Cathedral, the agitations of 40 years of friendship come to a boil. Jack had been their ringleader, and his presence permeates everything, even when – especially when – he’s gone. Vic (Courtenay) is an undertaker, and he has an undertaker’s comforting mien; he knows how to smooth out sorrows. Lenny (Hemmings), an ex-boxer with dark, winged eyebrows that make him look like a comic-book Mephistopheles, is a brawler with surprising depths of feeling who, in the middle of one chummy sequence, slips away to weep. Jack’s adopted son, Vince (Winstone), a car dealer who borrowed the Mercedes, could never really accept his father as his friend because he recognized the chill inside Jack’s bonhomie. Ray (Hoskins), who makes his money at the racetrack, was buddies with Jack from the time he saved his life when they shared a foxhole during WWII; he’s a pokey, humble man whose days were enlivened by his more roisterous mate.

Jack’s wife, Amy, played heartbreakingly well by Helen Mirren, once called Ray her “little ray of sunshine,” and their secret love, a mixture of pity and solace and sympathy, is the most delicately beautiful aspect of the movie. Amy also sensed the chill in Jack’s good tidings; on the day of the trek to Margate, as she has done for 50 years, she chooses to go to an institution to see her severely retarded daughter (Laura Morelli) – the child Jack never cared for or visited. Amy’s trip, like the men’s, is a leave-taking: She is saying good-bye to the daughter who could never comprehend who her mother was.

Graham Swift’s much-lauded novel was told from the shifting viewpoints of all these characters. It’s a virtuoso display marred by too much literariness. Schepisi removes the filigree from Swift’s conception and goes right for the emotional paydirt. He’s still saddled with the flashback structure, though, and the bygone sequences don’t have the same resonance as the modern ones; the performers playing the mature actors as youngsters can’t compete with the richness of their older counterparts. I almost wish Schepisi had dropped the flashbacks altogether and stayed with the main story. The performances are so good that they account for the past without our actually having to see it. We recognize in Jack’s gadabout eyes the scamp he once was, and the same is true, in different ways, for everyone else.

In fairness, no one should be asked to play on a par with these actors at the top of their form. Caine, especially, has never been better, at least not in a movie where he wasn’t the main attraction. The sadness in Jack, the way his wheedling, raucous humor covers up his working-class miseries, comes through without a hint of condescension. Schepisi doesn’t push these protagonists as “little people.” Their stories matter not because of some all-men-are-brothers blather but because we are made to feel in our bones what they are feeling. For these men, the trip to Margate is a preparation for their own deaths. Jack knew it, and by the end, they know it, too, and so do we. We’re part of the journey.

Collateral Damage stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as a Los Angeles firefighter whose wife and son are blown to bits during a terrorist raid on a downtown consulate, and it was originally supposed to open in early October. Presumably now we can handle it. Now we can see the film more objectively for what it is: a stinker. But will audiences flock to it anyway because they want to see an American strike back at bad guys with funny accents? If so, there will be such a rash of this stuff that I wouldn’t be surprised if the next American Pie were set in Islamabad.

The terrorists in Collateral Damage, which was directed by Andrew Davis (The Fugitive), are Colombian, but that probably won’t matter much to the shoot-’em-up crowd. Neither will the fact that Schwarzenegger’s Gordy Brewer is a man of few words – actually, almost none. So what else is new? Circumventing the wimpy State Department, which foolishly believes you can negotiate with terrorists, Gordy manages to muscle his way into Colombia through the back door and smoke out the guy who pulverized his family, a smart-ass revolutionary (Cliff Curtis) in the decades-long civil war who goes by the name El Lobo. (I guess Elfego Baca was already taken.) El Lobo didn’t seem all that scary to me; he looks like a pop star on Galavisión. Much scarier is his wife, Selena (Francesca Neri), who could win a staring contest with a coral snake. Our Everyman gets to slide down ravines and waterfalls, elude bullets, and paddle through the jungle into the heart of darkness. (This last sequence could be titled “Arnold, the Wrath of God.”) When justice is finally done, the media badgers Gordy for interviews and we are told that he is unavailable for comment. Now, that’s heroism.

Last Orders
Directed by Fred Schepisi; starring Michael Caine, Bob Hoskins, and Helen Mirren.
Collateral Damage
Directed by Andrew Davis; starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Cliff Curtis, and Francesca Neri.

Out of the Ashes