Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Bear Island (1979)

A UN sponsored group of scientists of different nationalities – of course all played by English native speakers doing horrible fake accents – under the leadership of one Otto Gerran (Richard “Nein, hören Sie!!!!” Widmark) comes to arctic, Norwegian Bear Island for some vague studies concerning climate change. Apart from the small former Nazi base the scientists are making themselves at home in, there’s only an old Nazi submarine harbour and a NATO base that is so completely out of bounds for the scientists they are not even supposed to make radio contact with it. Even before most of the expedition arrived, there has been the first mysterious disappearance (well, it’s a mysterious disappearance for the characters, the audience knows full well the victim was murdered), and that’s just the beginning of a series of violent events.

American scientist Frank Lansing (Donald Sutherland, not attempting a Californian accent as far as I can make out), who is actually on the island because his father was a German submarine captain who probably died right there and he feels in need of some closure, quickly discovers that there’s a huge cache of gold hidden on the island. It’s a lot of the stuff, and there are a lot of people in the expedition willing to kill for it.

Finding out who these people are will become rather difficult, though, because nobody on the island actually seems to have come to do any science at all, everybody has a secret, and nobody is truly who he or she seems to be.

By 1979, Don Sharp – despite a career that would in stops and starts continue for a further ten years – was still the always at least dependable, sometimes brilliant director he had been for decades, but he didn’t exactly move with the times anymore. From this perspective, he’s a very good fit for Bear Island, a thriller inevitably based on an Alistair Maclean novel that seems to come from a different world in a movie landscape after Star Wars and Jaws as well as after much of 70s action and adventure cinema.

There’s something old-fashioned and stiff about the film, a certain lack of sharpness and focus that results in a rather draggy middle act, with a script that can’t seem to decide if it wants to be a more visceral thriller, a variation of an Agatha Christie style manor mystery, or both, or nothing of the sort. From time to time, the film finds its step for ten minutes or so, thanks to Sharp creating a set-piece that’s actually exciting (if you like snow mobile duels, that is), or moody and actually telling us something about the characters (like Lansing’s first secret visit to the submarine base). Of course, a few minutes later, everything becomes a bit lifeless again, because obvious red herrings (seriously, no self-respecting old-fashioned mystery would be this obvious) have to be laid, and anything interesting has to wait for a while.

At least Bear Island has quite the cast. Apart from Sutherland (giving a performance fluctuating between bored and amused), and Widmark, there are also Lloyd “Bad Ass” Bridges, Christopher “I’m Polish, really” Lee, and Vanessa “Oops, forgot my accent for a scene again” Redgrave (wasted on playing The Girl, of course), and while the script does its damndest to not give them much to do or puts many a clunky line in everyone’s mouth, you can’t quite put this assembly of talent down, so from time to time, tiny sparks are indeed flying between them.

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