Amsterdam (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema

Shaggy dog story wrapped up in paranoia thriller. A shade overlong, with too many characters and too much plot but such flaws should not detract from that rare cinematic animal, a truly original movie. Brilliant screenplay, believable characters and superb acting prove an irresistible combination.

Though you can see why this sank like a stone at the box office, the all-star cast generally acting against type, idiosyncratic director given vast sums to play with, a tale that goes in too many directions at once, and the unconstitutional events of January 6, 2021, bringing this too close to home for fractured American audiences.

You don’t get this kind of writing much anymore. When individuals come together on a project – to save the world the most likely reason these days – their individuality is usually subsumed to the plot. Here, instead, the reactions of the characters remain distinct and no matter what is going on there is always time for individuality. And some of the invention is just deliciously insane, the nonsense songs for example.

Touching on the World War One aftermath of recovering from mental and physical wounds plus profiteering glee, a sense of a country racked by the Depression on the brink, mind-inducing experimentation of the political and pharmaceutical kind. A trio of war veterans, soldiers Burt (Christian Bale) and Harold (John Davidson Washington) and nurse Valerie (Margot Robbie) investigate a mysterious death, an illegal autopsy uncovering poison, only to find themselves framed for murder.

Burt is not a prime-time player according to wife Beatrice (Andrea Riseborough), and her wealthy family had dispatched him to the war in the hope he would return with bankable glory, but generally treat him as an unwanted black sheep. Valerie now makes art out of war debris, bullet shells and shrapnel, her charming brother Tom (Rami Malek) and his wife Libby (Anya Taylor-Joy) embedded in malevolence. Harold is a lawyer, for whom racism is a constant.

American and British secret service operatives, Norcross (Michael Shannon) and Canterbury (Mike Myers), float in and out. The moneyed business elite, despising White House incumbent Roosevelt, cast envious eyes at the dictatorial economic miracle of Mussolini in Italy.

On everyone’s dance card is General Dillenbeck (Robert De Niro), sought out by our intrepid trio and a mysterious cabal. All he has to do is make a speech at a veteran’s dinner. Make the right kind of speech and the trio are vindicated. Make the wrong kind and he could be assassinated.   

Like Chinatown (1974), Amsterdam is representative, a state of mind, but of freedom rather than endemic corruption. This is an intricate piece and a bit slow for today’s fast-paced generation and with more dialog than might sit well with a modern audience and flights of fancy that are far more original than anything you would find in the MCU. But it’s a hell of an intelligent thriller driven by a bunch of deadbeats.

It never goes down the obvious route. Instead of a love triangle – Valerie and Harold a pair – it’s an evocation of friendship. You don’t need umpteen clues to find the villains, they’re upfront, and they don’t think they are baddies, but cleverer people coming to the aid of the dumb masses putting too much blind faith in democracy. While this is based on a true story, in reality it’s based on the constant of the rich trying to get richer and the wealthy believing they are the best, even if unelected, candidates to run the world.

All that political stuff could have been a big turn-off if it had gone down the preachy route, but it doesn’t, instead it’s almost a miracle that it arrives at any conclusion given in whose hands the narrative has been placed. The Three Stooges would have done a better job of getting there quicker, but then you wouldn’t have had so much fun.

Not only are all the stars on their A-game but acting-wise it delivers some career-reviving turns not least from Christian Bale (Ford v Ferrari, 2019), devoid of a lifetime’s acquisition of irritating tics, John David Washington (Tenet, 2020) called upon to develop a character rather than an action-driven hero. I had to check the end credits to find out it was Mike Myers (Bohemian Rhapsody, 2018) playing the understated Canterbury and hogging the screen with none of the acting pyrotechnics that dogged previous attempts at mainstream work. Ditto Robert De Niro (The Irishman, 2019) and Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody), no grandstanding this time round – don’t worry I recognized both from the off – and Anya Taylor-Joy finally delivering on the promise of The Queen’s Gambit (2020).

Margot Robbie (The Suicide Squad, 2021) is already on the rise and this will add to her growing portfolio of fascinating characters. And if you’re fed up watching any of these stars in brilliant form, there are other distractions in the form of Chris Rock (Spiral, 2021), Taylor Swift (Cats, 2019), Andrea Riseborough (The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, 2021) and Alessandro Nivolo (The Many Saints of Newark, 2021).

You often hear the term “visionary director” thrown about with indiscriminate regard, but this is the right kind of visionary, director David O. Russell (Joy, 2015) with his own way of seeing the world, and delivering it in distinctive fashion, with less of an eye on camera movement and more on dialog and motivation and staying true to a coterie of original individuals.  

I guess the money was spent on atmosphere, this is 1930s USA regurgitated in enormous detail. But you’ll forget the background, the costumes and sets, and be dazzled instead by the script and the acting, and the enveloping tale of friendship.   

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

8 thoughts on “Amsterdam (2022) **** – Seen at the Cinema”

  1. I was excited by the cast, the trailer was good…but then the reviews started to come out and I pivoted away from a theatre visit. To be honest, I wasn’t that interested in catching up with it once available for home viewing until now, but your thoughts have me rethinking that. Intelligent thrillers are in short supply these days.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I was surprised how negative some reviews were. You think of someone like Robert Altman, the kind of the meandering multi-character picture, and how he was acclaimed back in the day. or even Fellini, not known for getting to the point quickly.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Jim Davidson Washington? You got it right the second time…I guess it’s just you and me that like this film, but I adored it for the reasons you describe. Hal Ashby springs to mind, Altman also a good shout…but the public just don’t care for this kind of thing…

    Liked by 1 person

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