SAS: Rise of the Black Swan Movie Review: For the message it conveys, it should have been better executed
Better utilisation of Tom Wilkinson, and this cliché-ridden film may well have had a lot more to offer
“Less than 1% of the population is psychopathic. Psychopaths often inherit the trait and are incapable of love. They manage their relationships with clinical precision, succeeding in all walks of life. Psychopaths that can learn to love are even more rare, as rare as a black swan.” These opening lines by the narrator espouse William Lewis’s (Tom Wilkinson) whole philosophy, a philosophy by which he justifies being a veteran leader of an elite, private mercenary group. William is seen driving a truck full of wards through Georgia. Among them is Grace (Ruby Rose), his favourite daughter and worthy successor to the Black Swan militia. Her brother Oliver (Owain Yeoman) doesn’t curry favour with his old man. “You’ve always had more ambition than your brother” and “There’s a difference between ambition and pride” (while referring to his presumable inadequacies) tell you clearly how he regards his black sheep of a son.
Directed by: Magnus Martens
Starring: Sam Heughan, Ruby Rose, Hannah John-Kamen, Tom Wilkinson, Owain Yeoman, Andy Serkis, Tom Hopper, Ray Panthaki
Streaming On: Netflix
When you’re in the business of rendering special services to the highest bidder (powerful international Governments, in this case), there can be no room for “feelings”. Grace walks in her Dad’s shadow. Empathy makes way for cold, hard precision. The Black Swans’ war crimes in Georgia (for the British Govt) are caught on camera and made public. The English PM is aware it won’t take long for the media to make a connection between the Swans’ presence in Hampstead Heath and the Govt machinery. He summons the SAS (Special Air Service aka Special Forces) top brass, ordering for an immediate termination of the militia’s unofficial contract. But as in common in such circles, there are axes to grind. Unequivocal instructions aren’t necessarily going to be adhered to. Organisations/People involved have varying shades of blood on their hands, and leveraging of damning information is the norm.
Based on Andy McNab’s novel, Magnus Martens’ adaptation falls prey to cliché. Is the film telling us anything revelatory about the environs it is set in? Is there enough depth accorded to each of the principal characters, so as to regard it a character-driven narrative? The short answer is no. Under-utilisation of the intensely brilliant Tom Wilkinson will prove to be the film’s undoing. Even in his short, barely visible role, William Lewis is the one character who is bereft of remorse, completely lacking in a moral compass. Look him in the eye as he delivers lines, you’ll see. He is a man incapable of grasping the constructs of right and wrong, good and bad. Ruby Rose as William’s daughter, Grace, is quite effective. Not as powerful as Wilkinson, but she holds her own as the new head – one who’ll lead with no inch given, no prisoners taken, no mercy shown.
Sam Heughan’s prinicipal performance as SAS Officer Tom Buckingham is below-par. While he is no different from the ones he is attempting to bring down, his so-called intensity is relegated to smouldering looks. Complex situations invariably have him staring hard at the camera as dramatic music plays. State-sanctioned crimes and human rights violations are a hard business. Your actions come back to haunt you, one way or the other. It may have augured well for Laurence Malkin’s screenplay to have Tom as a conflicted, tortured individual. What we get in its stead is a one-dimensional, unnecessarily cocky and emotionally closed off man proud of his ability to compartmentalise. His girlfriend, Dr Sophie Hart (Hannah John-Kamen), is part of that compartmentalisation. He claims to love her without being emotionally present.
Members of the SAS and Black Swan are presented in pretty much the same light. The story makes no distinction between sociopaths from either side. This aspect is captured best when Grace and Tom meet face to face in the hijacked train for the first time. Trying to mess with his head, she says to her hostage Sophie, “When he switches on, he kills people. When he switches off, he takes you to Paris.” Grace knows Tom is uncomfortable with the fact that they both commit murder without regret, and she uses it to wrest control. The lone moral centre of the narrative is Sophie, and yet, her character isn’t written well enough to challenge her partner.
Many reveals and coincidences are laughable. For instance, how could Tom end up breaching the Black Swans’ heavily guarded residence, without being intercepted earlier (what with their SAS informants)? How is Grace aboard the same train as Tom and Sophie? While the action sequences are on point, the revelatory moments can be seen from a mile away. And lastly, how realistic is it to present Tom Buckingham, a member of the Royal Family no less, as a Special Forces Operative? The film may be worth a watch, but it lacks the nuance to be considered good. One thing is beyond reproach, however. It needed more of Tom Wilkinson.