Moving Pictures
Nov 29, 2023, 06:29AM

Napoleon Solo

Ridley Scott’s latest programmer would’ve filled theaters 20 years ago, but a movie that's merely “OK” isn’t enough anymore.

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“Since Gladiator, I’ve made 19 movies—I’m busy. Since [Scorsese] started Killers of the Flower Moon, I’ve made four films.” That’s Ridley Scott, and the films are The Last Duel, House of Gucci, Napoleon, and the upcoming Gladiator 2. “I have 90 minutes cut together,” he told ReelBlend recently; downtime from the SAG-AFTRA strike put to good use editing. “Marty doesn’t edit while he shoots—I do.” Scorsese is 83, Scott is 85. The former laments that he’s running out of time, with “so many stories to tell,” while the latter scoffs at questions about his age and the pace of his late career, refusing to acknowledge either his mortality or the increasing sloppiness of his work.

Maybe it was always there. If you listen to many film snobs now, Scott’s an easy punching bag, a hack with two good movies from decades ago (Alien and Blade Runner) whose late brother Tony was a much more compelling filmmaker. And going over his films, it’s hard to argue with any of that, especially Tony’s superiority; his brother’s films, from Top Gun to True Romance to Man on Fire to Unstoppable, are consistently more interesting and more alive. Alien is undeniable at a certain level, and to me that’s his one great film. Blade Runner succeeds only in fully evoking the world of so many Philip K. Dick novels, not just the source Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (I liked the sequel more).

But Ridley Scott’s a fine hack: one of my most painful experiences waiting to pee was during the last 25 minutes of Matchstick Men, a movie I haven’t revisited since I saw it at the Towson Commons 8 in 2003, but I know that I could barely stand up when the credits started rolling and I ran through the crush of crowd to get to the bathroom—20 years ago, when programmers like Matchstick Men could fill a multiplex theater. Now, the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving 2023, several dozen people fill the Senator Theater to see Scott’s Napoleon, a two-and-a-half hour historical film starring Joaquin Phoenix in the title role. Vanessa Kirby’s equally important as Josephine, and while the film is relatively long, it doesn’t feel like an epic but a highlight reel—drained of all life and color, a film by Ridley Scott.

Napoleon tracks le petit corporal from his presence at the execution of Marie Antoinette through to his exile, death, and final three words: “France…Army…Josephine.” The film moves fast, without care for accents or believable aging makeup, or much makeup at all—like his camera attack, Scott’s care for detail is minimal. He can crank out four movies in four years because he shoots with 11 cameras. This movie was shot in 61 days. With up to 400 extras, multiplied digitally in post, Scott scatters cameras and camera operators in costume throughout his scene, erasing them later, allowing him to cover massive battles and coronation scenes with the speed of a Clint Eastwood film. Eastwood’s made plenty of big films, but he’s serene; Scott’s blunt.

Unfortunately, plenty of Napoleon is good: Kirby and Phoenix are more than amusing in their ice-cold courtship and “romance;” although they’re clearly soulmates, both actors recognize and work with what fascinated Stanley Kubrick about the Emperor: that such a vast chasm between political and military genius and social and sexual ineptitude was, essentially, a comic story of global proportions and consequences. Phoenix jackrabbit fucks Kirby from behind, never satisfying her, never lasting more than 30 seconds; whenever he deals with respectful, mystified, and scared diplomats and subordinates, he’s the kind of exaggerated child Napoleon we know from cartoons. Phoenix’s performance reminded me of Dexter from Dexter’s Laboratory, a petulant and ugly child who can’t leave his unfaithful wife and who screams at English officials, “You think you’re so much better just because you have BOATS.”

Napoleon isn’t a scratch of the movie Kubrick would’ve made, nor is it worth mentioning in the same sentence as Abel Gance’s film. As a Thanksgiving movie for the whole family, it’s a good programmer, one that would’ve filled theaters for weeks 20 years ago, even 10, but now? Audiences need to be seduced back into theaters, and middling movies like Napoleon aren’t going to do it.

—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith


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