New releases

“I was hoping you’d have more hair,” says Mary-Louise Parker to Bruce Willis in the opening act of Red () , a comedy based on a graphic novel about a former black-ops agent (Willis) who abducts his blind date (Parker) and takes her to meet his team of former colleagues to plot against a corrupt vice-president. When Parker says this line the audience whoops and Willis gives us one of his puckish side-smiles – the one he gives midway through Die Hard when he’s stuck in the ventilator shaft and suddenly looks into the camera and says “Come out to the coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs . . .”

Not many actors can get away with switching in and out of character, and yet Willis does it with ease, confident in our love. And we do love Willis. (Those who think they don’t, just call to mind his backwards sidle with gun raised. Told you.)

Willis has grace. That’s why they stuck him in a fitted white vest and high-waisted black trousers in Die Hard – like a member of a modern ballet company, leaping over chairs, tearing the place up. At 55, Willis is now entirely bald, skin smooth as a happy baby, the definition of conviviality – carrying Red despite its rotten plot (trouble in Guatemala; corruption that goes, as it always does in such stories, right to the top).

His co-stars Helen Mirren, John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman, Richard Dreyfuss and Brian Cox smile and smile as if this is the most hilarious trip of their careers. And who can blame them? What fun to be at the top of one’s game, glad-handing one another through the film’s more Butch and Sundance moments, enjoying all the fur that the wardrobe mistress has forked out for (Mirren wears a wolf coat more stunning even than anything Lee Marvin sports in Gorky Park).

But the grating self-satisfaction of everything! I don’t think I’ve ever seen Malkovich – playing a super-paranoid yet cuddly gun maniac – look so delighted as he does in the scene in which he sits tucking into a large scone and cream.

I suspect the now 56-year-old Malkovich may congeal into what we least expected: a lovable fatty. Not quite what one predicted on first seeing him in 1984 in The Killing Fields, super-sardonic and sitting up in bed with a sanitary towel strapped to his face doubling as an eye mask . . . yet he was still so cool. The guy you know in your heart is never going to call you back. (Incidentally, Red also features Karl Urban as a CIA operative who gets his head kicked in halfway through, to the delight of your reviewer, who has been longing for such a moment ever since the actor murdered Matt Damon’s nice German girlfriend in The Bourne Supremacy.)

Africa United () is a road movie about four children making their way, Huck Finnishly, from their native Rwanda to South Africa and the World Cup opening ceremony. It has the feel of something freshly improvised, filmed delightedly on the hoof. The children are young, and much of the film is given over to their sweetly blurred chatter, combining talk of disease and school, with Jesus and footballers (“Rooney is half-tiger, half rhino”).

And then suddenly things hit the amplitude of a riot as the cast burst into the chorus of the pop hit “That’s Not My Name”. As we travel with them through Congo and then further south in buses or inside crates of mangos, we see a jaguar snarling in the sink of a long-abandoned train carriage in the jungle and lions prowling fences: the film is wild. It gives way to moments of magic realism – an animated bird flying into a scene, a dragon made from rubbish rising up and roaring. I have hopes for the Yorkshire-based director Debs Gardner-Paterson – previously, incidentally, a presenter on Singapore’s Match of the Day – who never fears pushing the film in its closing moments towards something approaching the sadness of Midnight Cowboy.

Originally made as a 338-minute TV mini series, Carlos () can be seen in cinemas in both its full and 165-minute versions (I’m told there’s a 319-minute version knocking around Europe too, and it’s running at 340 minutes in the US). See any of them – but see it. A wizardly piece of brutal, romantic filmmaking, it makes old-fashioned beret-based terrorism look a thrill.

Ostensibly about the life of the Venezuelan revolutionary Carlos The Jackal, it states up front that it ought to be “seen as fiction” and yet sure comes on like truth, flinging us from Yemen to Paris. Its lead, Édgar Ramírez, is a former soap star from Caracas and an actor who deports himself with all the swaggering self-entitlement of a someone used to having panties waved at him through blacked-out windows while being chauffeured from set to private compound. Ramirez wings from Brando to Oliver Reed, head enormous above a bad leather jacket, one moment full of lickspittle cruelty, the next squirming in terrifying frustration.

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole () is the 3D animation debut of director Zack Snyder, who made a ripple in 2007 with his stylish 300 – about King Leonidas and his doomed Spartans. The tale of a few brave young owls standing up against a more evil gang, Legend is cute and beautifully voiced (Sam Neill, Helen Mirren, Hugo Weaving) but ruinously overlong and only shines during the closing credits which are Struwwelpeterishy sinister.

A painstaking and yet depressing claymation about a man with Asperger’s in NYC and his young Australian penpal, Mary and Max () is too long and wretched for children (Max is obese, receives electric shock therapy, and lives a life of neurotic misery) and yet surely too “kooky” for any sane adult (irritatingly camp words such as “smudgling”). It does, mind you, contain the best description of the Statue of Liberty your reviewer has heard: “a woman standing in a brown lake with her hand on fire”.

Nigel Andrews is away

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