Action movies come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The barrier between blockbusters and direct-to-video stuntfests has narrowed to nothing in recent years, and action enthusiasts know that the right actors and a small budget can go a long way toward providing an entertaining experience. So don’t be fooled by appearances: SAS: Rise of the Black Swan may have a goofy name and a second-tier cast, but it’ll almost certainly end up on a few Best Action Movies of 2021 lists before the year is out.
For years, the British government has utilized the Black Swans, a paramilitary force, to remove resistance in foreign countries. When genocide is seen on tape, George Clements (Serkis) is compelled to denounce the Swans, enlisting the help of special forces operative Tom Buckingham (Heughan) and others to eliminate them secretly. However, they quickly learn that Swan leader Grace Lewis (Rose) has survived and is planning a fatal attack on the Channel Tunnel. Buckingham is trapped below with his fiancée Sophie Hart (John-Kamen) and must eradicate the threat before the Swans – or the British government – consider the train’s passengers acceptable losses.
Behind the scenes, there are about four levels of political intrigue, 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 everyone who spent the 1990s in the Action-Adventure area of their local video store. The film has many Under Siege or Executive Decision in its DNA, with an extended, wrong-place-wrong-time gunfight starring a beast created by Western foreign policy. Much of the film refuses to establish clear emotional stakes for the audience, pitting two sociopaths against each other and throwing in a third (Heughan’s Buckingham, a developing assassin whose only “humanizing” aspect appears to be his vast riches) in the middle.
These sociopathic tendencies relieve the film from more traditional story beats — at least for a while. Civilians are mercilessly murdered between railway cars, but filmmaker Magnus Martens chooses not to dwell on these tragedies, instead emphasizing Tom and his adversaries’ professional carelessness by demonstrating how quickly they slaughter their way through the train. Meanwhile, Serkis’ Clements acts as the prime minister’s deadly hand, issuing orders to open fire on many instances without regard for the collateral damage that may result. Grace tells her father, “This government is addicted to what we do for them,” and nothing in SAS: Rise of the Black Swan suggests differently.
The film’s most apparent lure is Heughan, Rose, Serkis, and Hopper, who all play to their strengths as action stars on the little (and big) screen. Rose is fantastic as the bad guy, channeling the same fast-paced brutality she brought to the second John Wick film. Meanwhile, Serkis’ performance has a hint of John Hurt, with the actor harnessing significant lawful evil force with just a majestic mustache and a glass of champagne. The only true loser is John-Kamen, who, despite deserving of a breakout role, appears to be seen solely as an oddity for Buckingham’s burgeoning amorality in SAS: Rise of the Black Swan.
In reality, it appears that everyone is putting up their best effort here, except for director Magnus Martens. It seems despite being cursed with a corny script, he is still unable to inject any feeling of authenticity, humor, excitement, or drama into an action film with a great setup. SAS: Rise of the Black Swan is more of a TV special than a film, and it feels un-cinematic at every turn — too clean, too bland, and too cheap to ever equal the book’s boyish swagger.
In the final act, a large showcase set-piece reveals where all the money went (if not on Andy Serkis’ salary). Even yet, the time could have been better spent fine-tuning minor details, revising the script, and producing a better role for all of the actors who deserve far more on their résumés.
But, once all the pieces are in place, SAS: Rise of the Black Swan delivers the goods, with Tom knocking out terrorists and rescuing hostages deep inside the Channel Tunnel, coordinating with his comrades on the other end while negotiating with Rose’s ferocious baddie. SAS: Rise of the Black Swan hits all the right chords for roughly an hour in the middle.
SAS: Rise of the Black Swan appears to be a forthcoming action film for most of its runtime. Former soldier and self-described sociopath McNab is akin to the UK’s Tom Clancy, and Laurence Malkin’s narrative adaptation feels more credible than most thrillers.
Heughan is excellent in the role of John McClane, which SAS: Rise of the Black Swan is careful to portray as a soldier twisted by violence and not a world away from Rose’s psychopath. Climactic scenes between the two almost achieve a profound small moment but leave a terrible taste in your mouth.
Even some fantastic drone imagery of Paris and Mallorca can’t redeem the climactic sequences between Heughan and John-Kamen, which are a pure maudlin flop. They’re enough to sour what was previously a taut and exhilarating action movie and tip the scales for SAS: Rise of the Black Swan into the negative after the downer of a climax between the hero and the villain.
The film comes up short due to this last ingredient. SAS: Rise of the Black Swan depicts a battleground of merciless government killers for most of its duration. However, Martens and screenwriter Laurence Malkin appear to know that seeing government officers open fire on crowds in public may be difficult to sell to matinee audiences. Buckingham is forgiven – or at least absolved – in the eyes of his loved ones, and the overt condemnation of the military-industrial complex comes to a close with a note of drone violence presented as valor. It’s not the ending we were hoping for, but in this case, the journey kind of compensates for a safe ending.