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Reviews

Movie reviews: Crime thriller Hell Or High Water is like a Coen brothers work, only less weighty

In Hell Or High Water, there are no real villains, just two struggling siblings; while Max Steel is action figure toy marketing gone wrong

Hell Or High Water(M18, 102 minutes, opens tomorrow, 3.5/5 stars) blends crime action, suspense and social commentary with lashings of local colour - think the Coen brothers' Western noir Blood Simple (1984), but with a dash of The Big Short (2015), when the focus is on troubled home owners.

Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster, respectively) are brothers who tear through the small towns of the panhandle state of Texas on a Bonnie and Clyde-style crime spree.

Their exploits attract the attention of Texas ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a wizened professional a few weeks shy of retirement, and his native American partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham).

Lawmen on the trail of two outlaws striking one dusty outpost after another - the set-up could have come from an Elmore Leonard or a Cormac McCarthy novel.


Ben Foster (above left) and Chris Pine (above right) are brothers in Hell Or High Water. PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

There is plenty of crackling language here in the Leonard mould, in how Hamilton uses racist teasing with his partner as a way of showing brotherly affection, or in the salty plain-spokenness of diner waitresses who could be grandmothers.

British director David Mackenzie, who helmed the excellent prison drama Starred Up (2013), does not rush the story.

The asides - with waitresses who appear to be non-actors hired for their authenticity, with the brothers and their struggle to keep their failing farm from foreclosure by banks - are sharply observed and often funny.

There is an undercurrent of disquiet about old Texas vanishing as family farms go under, but it never becomes too strident.

Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, who penned the drug cartel thriller Sicario (2015), also knows to throw in a jokey small-town observation. For example, every other person has a pistol in his pocket and a rifle in his truck, and takes vigilantism very seriously, much to the brothers' chagrin.

The movie tries to but never quite achieves the angst and absurdity it strives for, so it lacks the weightiness of a Coen brothers project; perhaps it needs a remorseless, mysterious and murderous character walking the dusty roads like a force of nature.

In Hell Or High Water, there are no real villains, just two brothers who have a code and the rangers who live by another. In the inevitable final clash, as in all good Westerns, it becomes apparent they have a lot more in common than they think.

Movies based on toys fall on a scale that ranges from "ugh" to "meh". The size of the budget does not matter; in fact it is often inversely proportional to quality.


Ben Winchell (above) as Max Steel. PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE

Max Steel (PG, 92 minutes, opens tomorrow, 1/5 stars), an origin story based on a Mattel action figure, is very much an "ugh". It takes a long time to get started, before ending abruptly.

The audience is treated to the whiny teen misery of Maxwell McGrath (Ben Winchell), who is new in town and an outcast.

His mother Molly (the highly skilled Maria Bello wasting her time here) and friend of the family Miles Edwards (Andy Garcia) reassure him that nothing is wrong when many wrong things are happening, especially when he starts to become a shimmery two-legged LED lamp.

Not all toy marketing treatments disguised as movies are terrible; some, such as Transformers, are merely too loud and strident. But few have this movie's lack of imagination, humourlessness and corpse-like pacing.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2016, with the headline 'Brothers on a crime spree and a whiny teen'. Print Edition | Subscribe