You know, MUNICH is almost the movie I was hoping SYRIANA would be. SYRIANA has alot to say about the complicated way the world works, but it doesn’t get you excited about it. You’re probaly not gonna be sitting on the edge of your seat. More likely you’ll be scratching your chin saying, “Interesting, interesting.” I’d rather see a movie that can be complex and political without sacrificing in the awesome department. A good balance of substance and badass. And that’s what this is.
Okay so maybe MUNICH isn’t as true to life as SYRIANA (in fact, some people think the real guy it’s based on made up the whole story and never worked for Mossad) but it sure is a more entertaining movie. Eric Bana (winner of the secret, recently declassified 2001 lead badass outlaw award for CHOPPER) plays Avner, a small time Israeli agent personally chosen by the prime minister to lead a team of assassins to kill 11 people believed to be involved in the planning of the massacre of the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics.
I read a quote from Steve Spielberg (who, incidentally, is the director of this movie) that got me real excited. He talked about a scene where Bana’s character has a conversation with a PLO terrorist, and he said “Without that scene it’s just a Charles Bronson movie.” I thought Oh shit, a Charles Bronson movie with one extra scene? I’m there!
Really it’s not a Charles Bronson movie though, and not just because Charles Bronson isn’t in it. I mean I’m sure he would’ve been if he could’ve, but that’s not the point. The point is that the dialogue actually specifically says that Avner is not Charles Bronson, he’s pretty much a regular guy, not a hot shot agent who could be suspected of this type of business.
Other than the exclusion of Charles Bronson, the cast in this movie is dead-on perfect. Avner leads a team of five, so this is an ensemble. There are not overly familiar faces, unless you count Geoffrey Rush, who disappears into his role anyway. One guy I thought was from STANDER, but he wasn’t. Another guy I couldn’t figure out where I recognized him from, turned out to be the director of LA HAINE who also is in AMELIE. Daniel Craig is in there, and since I haven’t seen LAYER CAKE or travelled into the future to see him as James Bond, this will probaly always be how I think of the dude. This right here is a Best Supporting Badass role if I’ve ever seen one. Looking at him, it’s hard to believe he is actually alive and looking like that in 2006. He looks like a face that would only exist in the ’70s, by 2006 this face should be dead or bloated. And he’s a great character who doesn’t second guess the revenge as much as everybody else, but he’s not crazy or anything. He’s just a bad motherfucker. He almost steals the movie.
And Bana gives his best performance since CHOPPER. I don’t think he’ll ever get to play a character as good as Chopper again, because really, there aren’t any characters as good as Chopper. But this shows some of his other acting chops, and he doesn’t have to be emotionally reserved like he was in the Hulk. Did you know this guy started out as a standup comedian? In Australia he even had a comedy show called The Eric Bana Show. I haven’t seen it so I am just gonna guess that it is the Aussie version of The Steve Harvey Show. Anyway, for a comedian the motherfucker sure knows how to brood. He is one of our best brooders.
What’s great is the movie really works as a thriller. You got these bad lookin motherfuckers sneaking around spying, planting bombs, trying not to blow up the wrong people, trying not to get caught since they don’t officially work for Mossad. So you’ve got your badass revenge, and if they were getting revenge for some fictional crime it would be pretty enjoyable. But obviously Munich really happened (whether or not Avner did) so there’s another dimension to this. From the very beginning they make you feel uncomfortable about this vengeance. Every name they cross off the list just escalates the Israel-Palestine violence, so they might as well just keep adding to the list. And even if that wasn’t the case, being the ones to perform these covert executions takes a big mental toll on the killers. Except for Daniel Craig, he seems to kind of enjoy it, but he’s one of a kind.
Some people would expect Spielberg to make a movie only sympathetic towards the Israelis in this situation. And obviously you can relate to what they feel they have to do. But outside of the actual Munich massacre scenes, you never see anybody that seems like a villain. The people on Avner’s to-kill list just seem like ordinary people, people with families, people with desks and ties. And they don’t even know what the people did. For all we know the Mossad had their information wrong, or put them on the list for other reasons.
The movie is already intense from the brief opening titles, which has the screen filled with the names of cities – New York, Amsterdam, London… all cities where terrorist attacks have taken place – which fade away leaving only Munich. So I’m pretty sure Spielberg is talking about more than just Munich specifically. It’s almost as if this is both a great thriller and also ABOUT something. Hmmmm.
Actually, a good example of the movie’s thoughtful side is right in the beginning, where they explain the Munich massacre through re-enactments and actual news coverage. There’s news footage where it’s incorrectly reported that the Israelis have all survived and all of the terrorists have been killed. And Spielberg shows an old Arab lady sobbing at this news. It’s just one little shot but it reminds us that we have to look at things from different angles to understand who we’re dealing with in this world. That shows you right there that it’s a more complicated problem than just killing a list of terrorists. Unless that old lady is on the list, I’m not sure.
MUNICH is definitely one of my favorite movies of last year. I saw it this year but it’s one of those ones they just squeaked out right before the end of the year in a couple cities so that it would technically be considered last year. Alot of people have made a big deal about how it hasn’t gotten the usual Oscar push, not alot of advertising and sending out screeners and crap, and after a Time Magazine cover story Spielberg didn’t do anymore interviews or publicity. And this might be the reason why it hasn’t won alot of the critics awards that generally pave the path to Oscarland. But personally I think Spielberg is playing it smart. He has probaly heard rumors that I am trying to figure out a way to revive the Outlaw Awards after several years of hibernation. MUNICH is definitely one of the contenders for many categories and it’s a good idea not to spoil that momentum with a bunch of silly fuckin Oscars.
Anyway, I like what the movie says about vengeance, about the endless cycle of violence, and all that business. If it wins a whole bunch of awards, it deserves them. But not just because it’s one of them Important movies. It has something that in movies is even more important than Importance. It’s entertaining. Who would’ve thought that the year’s best badass picture would be directed by Steve Spielberg, of all people? You could make an argument for A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, which is probaly my favorite movie of the year, but then who would’ve expected David Cronenberg to be the guy either? I’m not sure which is the better movie but I think this is the more Badass. There are scenes in MUNICH where Avner and his team are walking down the street, carrying grocery bags and briefcases and those types of things, the things that are supposed to show that they are just five ordinary indivuals who happen to be walking down the sidewalk at the same time doing regular and not secret things. The grocery bag says “I’m taking home my groceries” but the look on his face says “I’m gonna kill a motherfucker and after that I got a long list of other motherfuckers that I’m also gonna kill.” That shot right there, that’s badass cinema. That’s what it’s all about.
After seeing MUNICH I found out about SWORD OF GIDEON, a 1986 TV movie based on the same book, VENGEANCE. I guess MUNICH pretty much makes SWORD OF GIDEON obsolete, because it’s a better cast and better filmatism. It’s more suspenseful, more thoughtful and more cinematic. But SWORD OF GIDEON is still pretty good.
This version stars Steven Bauer, who is actually Cuban. According to Hollywood logic, it’s too phoney to have an american play the lead Israeli, but you can hire an Australian or a Cuban. More exotic. Anyway, we all thank Steven Bauer for his service to our country. And by that I mean SCARFACE. But let’s be honest, he’s no Eric Bana. He’s not as convincing in this role. I’m sure he’s a smart guy, but his face doesn’t tell us that. I feel like an asshole for even thinking this, but there were times when the boyish look on his face reminded me of Freddy Prinze Jr. I wasn’t always believing he was on top of things as a master secret agent oughta be.
And the rest of the team can’t match the one in MUNICH, but they’re pretty good. Instead of a meek guy for the bombmaker, they got Michael York. The document guy, Hans, is Robert Joy (he played the slow-witted, half-burnt sharpshooter in LAND OF THE DEAD. Perhaps more importantly he is in the episode of MOONLIGHTING that Bruce Willis did a dvd commentary for). The boss character played by Geoffrey Rush in MUNICH is played by Rod Steiger in this one.
It has about the same running time as MUNICH, clocking in at just under 3 bucks. The storyline is pretty similar, with some variations. Instead of the matress bomb in the hotel there’s a car seat bomb in a car. The little girl doesn’t come back and answer the phone, but there’s similar trouble with a wife or girlfriend triggering the car-seat bomb. The bombmaker doesn’t blow himself up, but gets bombed by someone else. The perfume lady is in there, and the zip guns. The whole scene with the Israelis sharing a safehouse with PLO guys was made up for MUNICH, but SWORD OF GIDEON has some things you don’t see in the Spielberg version. The team gets bombed one or two more times, we see a little bit of their training, and of Avner’s dad. There’s a good scene at the New York apartment where it seems like the family is getting firebombed or something, but it turns out a kid hit a baseball through the window.
This version plays more like a straight spy thriller, it doesn’t pay as much attention to the morality of the revenge, and doesn’t linger on the violence to make you uncomfortable. There are some tense, suspenseful scenes where you’re rooting for them to pull off the bombings without getting any civilians. But by the end of course Avner is disillusioned, he decides he’s accomplished nothing and he makes a speech that maybe puts a little too fine a point on it.
MUNICH proves that SWORD OF GIDEON could do with a little less explaining. For example, in this version the bombmaker shows Avner the zip gun he built, explains how it is disguised as part of the bike and does a demonstration of how it works, then they use it. In MUNICH they just have it, and they use it, and you understand what it is because they are using it.
I don’t want to criticize SWORD OF GIDEON for not being MUNICH, though. I was still able to enjoy the movie even shortly after seeing MUNICH, so I’d say it cuts the mustard. I don’t know if the real life Avner is full of shit or not, but even if he is he’s inspired a great suspense story that says something about the blunt way we deal with complex problems in the modern world.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.