SAS: Rise of the Black Swan. MA15+, 124 minutes. Three stars
The latest big-budget action flick out on Netflix this week sees a soldier off to Paris on the Eurostar with the girl he's about to propose to, finding himself the right man in the wrong place as the train is hijacked and ransomed by a ruthless gang of terrorists.
The film is listed on the American Netflix site as SAS: Red Notice but is being released in Australia as SAS: Rise of the Black Swan. This says two things to me - the implication that this is the first in a series and whatever this Black Swan is, it's only just on the rise; and that somebody at Netflix thought the subtitle Rise of the Black Swan was going to make some difference to the number of eyeballs on it. I personally switched it on because of Sam Heughan and Ruby Rose, and I did so despite its terrible mouthful of a title.
That first-in-a-series idea is plausible, being based on one of three novels thus far in the Tom Buckingham series by former Royal Green Jackets and SAS soldier Andy McNab (the pen name of Steven Billy Mitchell), author of about two dozen enjoyable violent novels.
Tom Buckingham is, in this film, played by Sam Heughan, the pretty bloke in the tartan skirt from that other Netflix series Outlander. Tom's girlfriend Sophie (Hannah John-Kramen) is a doctor who has already diagnosed Tom as a chronic workaholic which makes her acceptance of the impending proposal no certainty.
Pausing their holiday a few hundred metres under the English Channel, where they have planted explosive devices on the train, is the terrorist cell Black Swan. At its head is Grace (Ruby Rose), whom we met as the film opened, committing violent atrocities on a village unfortunately situated in the way of a gas pipeline between Eastern Europe and the United Kingdom.
Turns out the Black Swan outfit are terrorists for hire and the British prime minister might be behind their little European bloodbath, turning his Special Forces against them rather than paying them for their service - thus the train hijacking in which Tom and his fiancee-to-be find themselves.
Slipping out of his seat and disappearing into the tunnel, Tom calls his friends back at SAS HQ and he is their man-on-the-scene, picking the terrorist operatives off one by one and leading as many passengers to safety as he can.
In what is a fairly formulaic action film, we get up to this point in the plot about 30 minutes into the proceedings and I felt a lack of confidence facing a film that looked like Sylvester Stallone's Daylight with British accents, but director Magnus Martens does a serviceable job keeping up the pace.
What elevates this film above others in its genre, apart from the great production values all that Netflix money buys, is the character-based work that went into the script from Lawrence Malkin working from McNab's novel. It's hard to tell who the bad guys are because the characters are flawed and driven in equal measure.
Rose's Grace makes a Bond-level villain and holding a few hundred civilians to ransom is no act of public service, but she did perform a contract for a legitimate government that then tried to kill her to cover their own tracks. She and her team aren't without plausible motivation.
The hero, Tom Buckingham, also comes pre-loaded with a headful of psychology just waiting to be unpacked, and his pals from the SAS are a mess of motivations. A trio of big names - Andy Serkis, Noel Clarke and Tom Hopper - lead the military forces and knowing the British government have skeletons in the closet, it's a task working out who might be one of the prime minister's puppets and who is just playing workplace-psychopath mind games on their colleagues as they get in each other's way on their rescue operation.
Serkis is brilliant, as is Clarke, obviously cast before his recent social media cancellation, and the producers know what they're doing putting Tom Hopper in a tight t-shirt for most of the production.
Aussie Rose has panache and that certain thing that has seen her cast in a dozen high-profile roles in recent years. She initially was a little wooden in her performances but like any good tradesperson she has been learning on the job and I have to say she is confident and plausible in a demanding role here.
Heughan is a charming and graceful action leading man and he gets my vote as the next James Bond, for which rumour certainly has him getting good odds.