Amsterdam – Film Review

Amsterdam is the lighthearted mystery adventure from polarising writer/director David O. Russell set in the 1930s where three veterans of The Great War share a bond of friendship and love born from their experiences.

These are disfigured medic Burt (Christian Bale), lawyer Harold (John David Washington), and eccentric artist Valerie (Margot Robbie). Asked to provide an impromptu autopsy on their former commanding officer Burt, and Harold quickly find themselves framed for murder, given the opportunity to investigate the crime for which they’ve been accused of, they stumble into the middle of a mind-bending conspiracy which could lead to another great war!

I have personally been a huge fan of Christian Bale for over 20 years now. His ability to change himself and not just physically has always been something special. From blockbusters to arthouse indie pictures, his choices of roles have remained consistently interesting to me. Needless to say, I was excited to see Bale reuniting with David O. Russell after their 2013 smash hit American Hustle.

Here as always, Bale shines bright, giving a thoroughly unique comedic performance. As a fan, I’m happy to say he brings majority of the laughs to this film. A tall order here in particular, considering the stellar ensemble cast Russell has assembled.

While many play expectedly reduced parts, I am surprised with how little time is given to Margot Robbie and John David Washington. While Bale leads the film, they act more in supporting roles, never really as important to the plot as Burt. Much of their time on screen is spent on a romantic sub-plot and neither character struck me as that interesting. Robbie has proven herself in the past but I’m hesitant to say if Washington would have been capable even if his role had been expanded. Often less is more, but here Washington continues a trend of being outshined by his co-stars.

In fact, the huge ensemble of varied quirky characters are the real draw here. With but a few exceptions, it was a treat seeing such a talented cast play so against type. Rami Malek as the charming, debonair Tom Voze was great. Michael Shannon, largely known for stoic roles going toe to toe with Mike Myers was a hoot. While Timothy Olyphant is almost unrecognisable as the vicious assassin Taron Milfax.

Sadly, some of the cast are let down by their underdeveloped characters. Zoe Saldana is criminally wasted playing a somewhat throwaway love interest for Burt. Perhaps spread too thin, there isn’t enough time for everyone to get their fair shake. 

The weakest part of this mystery film is unfortunately the mystery itself. While weaker characters are subsidised by the fun performances, there is little compelling about Amsterdam’s plot. A convoluted and meandering story plays out over an unnecessarily long run time. Never very intriguing in the first place, the eventual pay-off is just painfully dull.

On the technical side the look of the 1930s is authentically recreated in many ways throughout. Costume design is impressive as is the production design. This is an extremely gorgeous looking film and with talented 3-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki as cinematographer, that is almost cheating!

However, of special note is one often overlooked aspect of post war life. That is the physical marks World War I left on so many returning soldiers. Whether through make-up or CGI, Amsterdam goes into great detail in this regard. These constant reminders do well to establish the hardships of war and the pain it leaves behind.

While Amsterdam is a cute film, it is not nearly as poetic or poignant as it thinks it is. David O. Russell’s Amsterdam is built off his previous filmography with little worthwhile of its own except for its impressive cast. Perhaps with a shorter runtime or a more intriguing plot, Amsterdam could have been a classic in its own right. All of the right pieces are here, but it is not the sum of its parts.

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