For the past couple of years, I’ve been following the popular “SAS” series in which a group of special forces operatives in the British military are tasked with outmaneuvering terrorists, Somali pirates, and other nefarious forces to prevent a catastrophic event. The latest installment in the series, “Rise Of The Black Swans” (ROTS), is the fifth in the series to date, and it sees the British special forces team in the middle of an operation in Somalia. The plot of the movie is simple enough: the British forces are in Somalia to deal with a rogue warlord who is using kidnapped British aid workers to fund his terrorist operations. The plot is just simple enough for a movie to hold the attention of the average
The first real post-Avengers superhero franchise was a natural choice for a film series to be made of. When the first movie came out, the movie had some issues, but it was still a fun popcorn movie that entertained as a team of superheroes save the day as a new Avengers movie is released every two years. However, even with some great actors portraying some great characters, some of the film’s jokes got old some time ago.
On paper, the idea for this franchise was interesting. A soldier, his friend, and his dog embark on a journey of self-discovery, which would be great for a summer blockbuster, but isn’t exactly the kind of thing that lends itself to a game, which was what the producers had in mind.
Action films come in many different forms and sizes. In recent years, the gap between blockbusters and direct-to-video stunt flicks has vanished, and action fans know that the right performers and a modest budget can go a long way toward delivering an enjoyable experience. So don’t be deceived by outward appearances: SAS: Rise of the Black Swan may have a silly title and a second-rate cast, but it’ll almost definitely make a few Best Action Movies of 2023 lists before the end of the year.
The British government has used the Black Swans, a paramilitary group, to eliminate opposition in other nations for years. When genocide is caught on video, George Clements (Serkis) feels obliged to expose the Swans, enlisting the assistance of special forces agent Tom Buckingham (Heughan) and others to covertly kill them. They soon discover, however, that Swan commander Grace Lewis (Rose) has escaped and is plotting a deadly assault on the Channel Tunnel. Buckingham and his fiancée Sophie Hart (John-Kamen) are trapped below, and they must eliminate the danger before the Swans – or the British government – deem the train’s passengers acceptable losses.
There are four levels of political intrigue behind the scenes, ranging from the Prime Minister (Ray Panthaki) to Britgaz rep and mercenary go-between George Clements (Andy Serkis), SAS Major Bisset (Noel Clarke), and SAS officers Declan Smith (Tom Hopper, Dickon Tarly on Game of Thrones) and his buddy Tom.
SAS: Rise of the Black Swan will appeal to anybody who spent the 1990s at their local video store’s Action-Adventure section. With its lengthy, wrong-place-wrong-time firefight starring a beast produced by Western foreign policy, the picture has a lot of Under Siege or Executive Decision in its DNA. Much of the picture avoids establishing obvious emotional stakes for the viewer, putting two sociopaths against one other and smacking a third (Heughan’s Buckingham, a budding assassin whose only “humanizing” feature seems to be his enormous wealth) in the midst.
For a while, the film’s psychopathic inclinations free it from more conventional narrative rhythms. Civilians are slaughtered brutally between railway cars, but director Magnus Martens prefers to focus on Tom and his opponents’ professional recklessness by showing how fast they kill their way through the train. Meanwhile, Serkis’ Clements serves as the prime minister’s lethal hand, giving orders to launch fire in many occasions despite the potential for collateral damage. “This government is hooked to what we do for them,” Grace tells her father, and nothing in SAS: Rise of the Black Swan indicates otherwise.
Heughan, Rose, Serkis, and Hopper, who all play to their strengths as action actors on the little (and large) screen, are the film’s most obvious draw. As the bad villain, Rose is excellent, bringing the same fast-paced savagery she brought to the second John Wick picture. Serkis’ portrayal, however, has a touch of John Hurt, with the actor wielding tremendous lawful evil power with only a magnificent mustache and a glass of champagne. The only real loser in SAS: Rise of the Black Swan is John-Kamen, who, while worthy of a breakthrough role, seems to be seen simply as an anomaly for Buckingham’s growing amorality.
Except for director Magnus Martens, it seems like everyone is putting up their best effort here. Despite having a goofy screenplay, he seems to be unable of infusing any sense of realism, comedy, excitement, or drama into an action picture with a fantastic premise. SAS: Rise of the Black Swan seems more like a TV special than a film at every step, too clean, boring, and cheap to ever match the book’s youthful bravado.
A huge showcase set-piece in the last act shows where all the money went (if not on Andy Serkis’ pay). Even still, the time might have been better spent fine-tuning small elements, rewriting the screenplay, and casting superior actors who deserve much more on their résumés.
But, once all the pieces are in place, SAS: Rise of the Black Swan delivers, with Tom taking out terrorists and rescuing captives deep within the Channel Tunnel, all while communicating with his colleagues on the other end and negotiating with Rose’s fierce baddie. For about an hour in the middle, SAS: Rise of the Black Swan strikes all the right notes.
For the most of its duration, SAS: Rise of the Black Swan seems to be an upcoming action picture. McNab, a former soldier and self-described psychopath, is comparable to Tom Clancy in the United Kingdom, and Laurence Malkin’s narrative adaption is more believable than most thrillers.
SAS: Rise of the Black Swan is cautious to depict John McClane as a soldier corrupted by violence, not dissimilar to Rose’s psychopath. Heughan is great in the character of John McClane. Climactic moments between the two nearly reach a meaningful little moment, but they leave you with a bad taste in your mouth.
The final scenes between Heughan and John-Kamen are a complete maudlin failure, despite some beautiful drone footage of Paris and Mallorca. They’re enough to sour what was previously a tight and thrilling action film, tipping the scales against SAS: Rise of the Black Swan following the showdown between the hero and the villain.
Due to this last component, the picture falls short. For the most part, SAS: Rise of the Black Swan portrays a battlefield of ruthless government assassins. Martens and screenwriter Laurence Malkin, on the other hand, seem to understand that witnessing government officials open fire on people in public may be tough to sell to matinée viewers. Buckingham is forgiven – or at least excused – in his loved ones’ eyes, and the overt criticism of the military-industrial complex comes to an end with a note of drone brutality portrayed as heroism. It’s not the happy conclusion we were looking for, but in this instance, the trip more than makes up for the lack of a happy finale.
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