Mark Kermode interview: critics, star ratings, Joe Cornish, PR

Mark Kermode on modern film criticism, critics of his own work, Michael Bay, Jason Statham and male oil wrestling.

The last time we spoke to Mark Kermode, he’d just launched his book about the state of movie criticism, Hatchet Job. Since then, he’s embarked on a nationwide tour with the book, and undertaken dozens of Q&As with audiences about it.

And that, as Hatchet Job continues to thrive in paperback, is where we started…

I spoke to you just as you launched Hatchet Job, and in your words, since then you’ve “toured the arse off it”. You’ve done Q&As with the people who’ve read your book, and who you wrote it for.

So what have you learned about what audiences feel regarding film critics, and where they sit in the world?

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I think the most important thing was when I started writing it, I was, as you know, a bit pessimistic about the future of things. Partly because I’ve worked for so long in print journalism and radio journalism, and there was a number of people who seemed that their livelihoods were in danger. And there was an awful lot of feeling in the air at the time, particularly 2010 and 2011, that somehow the internet was responsible for all of this.

And actually, the thing that I talk about in the book at the end of it, it becomes apparent that it’s nothing to do with that at all. Film criticism has been through all these changes over many years, and you can look back over the history of it – there are many moments where you can look at it and say ‘this is the death of film criticism’,

It turns out not only not true, but the opposite of true. I keep thinking back to people writing about Siskel & Ebert doing thumbs up and thumbs down on television, and somebody writing an article saying ‘this is the end of film criticism’. And then of course after Ebert died, he was being hailed as the great American critic who had breathed new life into it.

And I loved that film, Life Itself. I thought it was really, really wonderful. Loved it.

So the thing that was good about doing the tour… I talk for 45 minutes, and do 45 minutes of Q&A. Firstly, people came along to see a film critic talk for an hour and a half. More importantly, they were as much engaged with film criticism as they have ever been. We would always run out of time, there would always be more questions than you could answer.

Obviously it’s a self-selecting audience, but there were a lot of people there who were bloggers who wanted advice on how they could get their work seen. And what I said to all of them was it’s like anything else. There is a community of writing, and good writing will out. But the thing is that you have to approach the right people. You have to find sites that you admire, who you think are doing the job properly. And then approach them.

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One of the great things about online writing is that it’s easier to network. If someone has a piece of writing that they like, they can Tweet it, and they can pass it on. It is possible to get your voice heard. The difficulty is that there are so many voices…. I’d imagine you must get hundreds of people sending your site stuff?

We had some off the back of your tour, oddly enough.

Was that a good or a bad thing?

It’s never a bad thing! But for quite a few who get in touch with us, it turns out not to be for them.

But that’s always been the case. The fact is that it’s not something that everybody can do, or everybody wants to do.

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Most people who have asked me how to become a film critic, I say that it’s different to when I started. When I started, you went into magazines, you went into City Life, and Time Out, and you just stayed there until it was easier – and this isn’t facetious – to give you work, than to send you away.

Obviously, as far as approaching online outlets is concerned, emails are easy to send, but they’re easy to ignore. Everybody understands that. But nine out of ten, or even 99 out of 100 people who think they want to be film critics, they soon realise after five or six months of doing it that it’s not what they wanted it to be.

In truth, we’ve had people where it’s taken five or six days. No exaggeration.

It may be that all the time frames are compressing, and that things are speeding up. That’s a good thing as far as I’m concerned! I don’t want 100 new film critics every week. What I’ve said to most people is that I’ve struggled to think of anyone who really wanted to be a film critic who hasn’t ended up being a film critic.

Most of the people who really want to be film critics do tend to have the right tools for the job. A wide ranging film knowledge, an ability to write coherently, and most importantly, an ability to learn from their editors how to do the job better. Most people, after a while, realise it’s not what they want to do, and move on.

A side issue to that, even compared to 20 years ago, the aim was for a full time job. But the culture of writing now is very much freelance-driven, by necessity more than desire. And if you’re trying to break into writing now, you’re inevitably going to be freelance. And then freelance is arguably 50% about selling your work, as much as the writing itself.

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I’m sure that’s the case. I’m still now a freelancer. I’ve always been self-employed. I talk to some extent in the book that there was a badge of honour to being a freelancer, and you used to sneer at people who had staff jobs!

But when that whole thing came up about the axe falling and the profession falling by the way, what they really meant was staff jobs going. For some of us who never knew what a staff job was, that wasn’t such a good thing. Emails from Nigel Floyd have that quote at the bottom: “a freelance is paid per word, per article or per haps”. That’s kind of the thing that we all live by.

I do think that anyone who really wants to be a film critic, you should encourage them. Obviously when it gets to what you’re doing, the question becomes ‘well are you any good?’. I remember at Sight & Sound, there was an open door, but it was very strict. Are you actually good enough to do this? With Sight & Sound, certainly when I started out, you would write four or five reviews before they ever printed anything. It was all about bashing you into shape.

So I think that there is as much enthusiasm and knowledge as there ever was, maybe more so. Some of the best writers are online.

Clearly the question is how do you make a living out of it. I think the chips are still in the air. Newspapers still haven’t quite figured out whether it’s paid-for content or advertising. But they will. The internet is not going to cause the end of that marketplace.

Will Self – who hates Hatchet Job, and that’s absolutely fine – argued that this whole thing is rubbish anyway, because there’s no longer any such thing as a critic. The internet has destroyed all of that.

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Well, it’s nonsense. It’s nonsense. He writes about the internet with the airy authority of someone who’s never been on it. Who has read about it in books. It reads well, but it’s not true.

Regardless of whether or not he likes something that you’ve written, what matters is what he says about the internet isn’t right. It hasn’t happened. What the internet has done, in inverted commas, is democratised voices? It’s just demonstrably not true.

I read Will Self’s review of your book. And it does raise the question as to how you distil criticism of your own work? Does it sting?

Of course it does.

I’ve had good and bad reviews: you remember the bad ones, you don’t remember the good ones! But the first thing you do when you read any piece of criticism is ask yourself whether it’s right. Believe me, there are things wrong with Hatchet Job that some reviewers have picked up on, with very valid points.

In the case of that particular Will Self review, I don’t agree with anything he says, and that’s fine! The fact that it was half a page in The Guardian increased the sales of the book, so I can’t complain about it either! One of the things I’ve always said about the book is that the sales leapt up the next day!

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Did that happen because everyone read the review and said Will Self doesn’t know what he’s talking about? No. It happened because it was half a page. This is why when people say criticism damaged it: no it didn’t!

But what I do do, as a result of writing the book, having it reviewed, and having talked about it… well, I’ll give you an example.

Stuart Barr is a writer I admire very much. Our relationship began because I did a review of a found footage movie. He sent me a message on Twitter saying ‘I think you’re wrong about this, and about this particular film’. The name of the film fails me, but he wrote a piece about it, and I looked at it, and thought yeah, that’s right. As a result of what he said, I did a blog about how he was right. And that’s how our relationship began. You’re always open.

But what nobody should do is see criticism as a negative thing. You have to do what you want to do. It’s not a beauty contest. You do something, and it’s was it what you wanted it to be. Yes. The only criticism that really hurts is when someone points out something [that you’ve got wrong yourself].

I went along to one of the Q&As you did, and someone asked you an interesting question that I want to put on the record here. And it was to do with the fact that modern critics have their screenings stacked. So you have a Monday today where you’ll have to see four or five films back to back.

Does that, then, make you slightly generous? Even too generous to the ones later in the day?

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It’s not to do with later in the day. One of things about being a film critic is that everybody imagines you become incredibly bitter and twisted. And you hate everything. That all that film critics do is go ‘this is rubbish, this is rubbish, this is rubbish’.

Actually, the opposite happens. If you look at it statistically, in any given week the chances that you’re going to see more than two really good films are pretty small. And in any given week you’re seeing seven, eight, nine, ten films.

What actually happens is that because you want to write something, you’re looking for anything interesting to write about. If it’s a not-great week, you start to find virtue where there is none, rather than the other way around.

Despite what everyone thinks, it’s harder to praise engagingly than it is to snipe. But it’s often the case that if you have a particularly mediocre week, you’ll see something that’s actually mediocre, but you’re looking for something else in it. Then what happens is that two years later, it turns up on Channel Four at 10 o’clock at night. You remember you really liked it, so you start watching it and go, oh, okay.

Again, that ties into something in the book, that that’s the risk to your reputation. It’s much more risky to praise something than it is to criticise it. That’s all the more reason to do it. In the end, your reviews are only worth as much as you have to lose. And if you don’t have anything to lose, you don’t have anything invested in them, then I’m not really sure they’re worth that much.

Attack The Block

Can we touch on your exchange, then, with Joe Cornish on your radio programme. It went against the perception that a filmmaker doesn’t have a right to reply.

He came on to talk about Attack The Block, and I remember being just a little taken aback that somebody had come on the show and disagreed with what you’d said about their film.

Is the fact that directors don’t tend to do that a by-product both of the level of control and level of immediacy that’s exerted over films now? That the message has to be right on the week of release, and so a filmmaker can’t challenge openly what someone’s said about their film?

What was interesting with that Joe Cornish thing was that he had a very particular problem with the review, which he expressed very articulately. And we had a very good discussion about it. I thought it was a great bit of radio, and I’m really proud of it.

I don’t think filmmakers should pay any attention to critics at all. And I think that filmmakers should feel utterly justified to say what they want about criticism. Because that’s fine: reviewers don’t write their reviews for filmmakers, and filmmakers don’t make their films for critics. Opinions are everything, and it is just opinions. As long as you understand that’s what it is. Saying somebody wrote a bad review of my film and that I’m going to go and beat them up, I think, is wrong!

It’s happened…

Yes, but that’s a mistake.

For example, Paul Schrader on the internet said [last year] that ‘I thought Mark Kermode was a serious critic and now he’s not worthy to review my films’. That’s fair enough. Good. I didn’t like his movie, that’s perfectly fine. I didn’t write the review for him, and he didn’t make the film for me.

But what was interesting about Joe was that he was engaging with it. It wasn’t a case of him saying I like this or I don’t like this. It was more saying that I want to have this out. And I’m really proud of the programme for having enough space to allow him to do that. What was nice was being able to have that discussion, and I think he put his point very eloquently. I don’t agree with him, but I thought he argued the point very well.

And I thought that if anyone was listening to that, they would think okay, I heard both sides, I’ll go and see the film [Attack The Block] and make my own mind up. Which has always been my position anyway. Audiences make up their own mind.

It does tie into the fact that it’s harder and harder to go into a film of a certain stature completely clean-minded.

It is.

In the case of Attack The Block, the posters were selling it as akin to Shaun Of The Dead.

That was the crux of it. The crux of my problem is that it had been sold as Shaun Of The Dead, and the crux of his problem was that ‘you’re not reviewing my film, you’re reviewing Shaun Of The Dead’.

I think everyone was agreed that Attack The Block was better if you didn’t go into it thinking about Shaun Of The Dead.

But you talk, say, about Transformers 4. You said beforehand that you have to go in with an open mind. That this might be the film of the year. But can you? Can you purely do that?

I think you have to. But it’s like anything else: it’s discipline. Yes, it’d be easy to go in with preconceptions, and I’m sure we all do. But you should strive not to. You should at least try not to.

The best example I can give you, and I promise you with my hand on my heart, that I went into Pain And Gain thinking okay, this could be the moment that Michael Bay demonstrates… well, it’s not like I’ve never liked a Michael Bay film. I think Bad Boys was kind of fun when it came out. And we all watch The Rock, but that was a long time ago. But that was okay.

But I did go into Pain And Gain thinking okay, he’s made an art house movie. And it’s lesser budget, script driven… is this going to be the Guy Ritchie moment? Where you suddenly go ‘Oh! Wow!’

And then it was horrible. Beyond my wildest dreams it was horrible. But I promise you that until the moment the film started, I had an open mind.

You talked earlier about the film Life Itself, and there’s a lovely moment in that film where Martin Scorsese talked about the underwhelming review he got from Siskel and Ebert for The Color Of Money. And how that got to him. That he couldn’t avoid it getting to him.

Have you experienced filmmakers who have had a similar reaction to your criticism? Or appreciated the impact it’s had on them?

Yes. There are filmmakers who do that. And there are filmmakers with whom I have subsequently become friends.

I don’t have many filmmaker friends, and I think that’s quite a good thing. By the time Ken Russell was a very good friend of mine, he had sort of stopped making feature films really. Terry Gilliam has always been very interested in criticism, and again, he came on the radio show and said ‘you’re completely wrong about Brothers Grimm. You think this, but actually this’. Some years later he changed his tune a little bit, but he’s always been very engaged with it.

But it’s up to the filmmaker whether they want to read reviews or not read reviews. It’s up to the filmmaker to take criticism.

I know for a fact that William Friedkin said that he would read Roger Ebert’s reviews because he found them beneficial. And it’s not just because Ebert liked his movies – he didn’t like all of them – but he would read Roger Ebert’s reviews and think that there was something of value in seeing what Ebert had to say.

Other filmmakers, as a rule, just don’t have anything to do with film criticism. And it’s up to them.

I spoke to a film director last year, and was told that at film school, they were told to try and make friends with editors of movie websites.

Well, that’s a very dangerous precedent. I talk about it in the book: there are good reasons why I think you should keep clear blue water between critics and filmmakers.

And yet the opposite has been taught in at least one case. It’s the only case I know of, to be fair.

In a way, from a very cynical point of view, it would kind of make sense. Which is not a surprise. Hey, try and get the people onside. I think it’s best not to, though.

Since you started writing the book, one thing that I’ve noticed is that barriers to access for websites have come down. It’s not a potshot: I just think you can have a relatively low profile website now, and land a five minute interview in front of a movie star, or a filmmaker.

But how healthy do you think that is? That for someone so early in their critical career to meet the people they’re criticising? You’ve talked about discipline a lot. But discipline is hard, and discipline for many comes with experience…

One thing that’s true, and you’ll know this very well, is that five minutes with anybody is very hard to do anything useful with at all. It is a ‘tell me what you had for breakfast, thank you very much, I loved the film’. So I think that is difficult.

For The Culture Show, I was once in Cannes, and I had something like eight minutes with the Coen brothers….

Cool! Four minutes each!

Yeah! I’d interviewed them plenty of times beforehand at great length, but because it was Cannes, eight minutes was a substantial slot. We might as well have been meeting on a railway platform. We said okay, fine, this is completely absurd, let’s just see what we can do, because the train’s coming in any minute.

Most people know that a five minute interview is only enough for Arnold Schwarzenegger to tell you how great his new movie is, and to plug Planet Hollywood.

The thing about meeting filmmakers… for a start, you have to remember that interviewing somebody isn’t meeting them. It’s not. If those people are doing five minute interviews back to back, and you’re one of 20, you didn’t meet them. They might not even have clocked you were there.

I’ve interviewed a lot of people who would have no idea they’d be interviewed by me, because I was one of a slew of people that spoke to them that day. Even if at the time that you’re talking to them, you find some kind of connection, they’re in the middle of a junket.

I don’t know that that’s a problem. There’s not like a relationship formed that’s going to be threatened. What I do think is that film journalism isn’t about meeting filmmakers. Film journalism is about writing about film. You could be the best film journalist in the world without ever meeting or interviewing a filmmaker. You need to remember that. You’re not a columnist or a profiler. Sometimes, those things can be really interesting or really useful.

I did a long piece with Paul Thomas Anderson for The Observer, and I’ve interviewed him a lot over the years. And I do find those conversations interesting. But that’s not the meat and potatoes of film criticism. The meat and potatoes is watching films and talking about them. Everything else is sort of tangential.

You shouldn’t ever think ooh, I’m in a room with Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’m doing really well!

Our record was we were offered three minutes with Jerry Bruckheimer.

[Laughs]

It’s the reason we do so few interviews! But I think the way online film outlets are going is that see some people tend to write softer pieces after they’ve met the person involved.

That doesn’t surprise me. I’m very lucky with the show I do with Simon Mayo, because he does most of the interviews.

Is that a deliberate divide? Or circumstance?

It’s both. Firstly, he’s a better interviewer than I am anyway. Secondly, I don’t really like interviews. Unless it’s a filmmaker I’m really interested in, or fascinated by. It’s not the thing I live to do.

And also, it does separate the interviewing from the criticism, which I think is generally a good thing. There will be some cases in which I am interested, and I do want to talk to them. But I think it’s a good idea to keep the film separate. You’re not reviewing the filmmaker, you’re reviewing the film.

One of the things that I find sometimes when I’m reviewing a film myself, is that I’ll see a film and miss the subtext that others get. I’ve seen one or two films where that’s happened, and because work is out there and analysed, I’ve been shot down for it.

In what way?

Where the accusation is that you’re dim for not seeing something in a film that others did. That ‘I can’t believe you missed it’ thing. I’m fine with it, but as you say at the end of the book, “I no longer trust myself when it comes to judging movies”. But does everyone have that point? Because that’s mine. Where The Wild Things Are was one for me: I didn’t get that they were all subsets of his character, and read a review where it said it was obvious, and I just missed it. It felt like I was wrong for doing so, but I felt I had to be honest about missing it.

Well, it’s more obvious if you’ve read the source.

Absolutely. But you wrote this line: “I no longer trust myself when it comes to judging movies”. And yet that’s what you do?

Here’s what I think in the end. Film criticism isn’t to do with passing judgement on something. It’s to do with writing about something. When you start, you do think it’s very much to do with ‘this is good, this is bad, this is funny, this isn’t funny’. There is an element of that.

But the more you do it… bear in mind, for better or worse, I’m 52 now and I first started writing film reviews when I was in my 20s. The older you get, the more you tend to write about films, rather than pass judgement.

It’s one of the reasons I hate star ratings. I do hate them, and I have to do them for The Observer online, but not for the paper. That was the deal that we struck

But do you put the stars on yourself?

Yeah, I do. Because if I didn’t, somebody else would. Online they need star ratings because statistically it helps attract traffic, and if I didn’t do it, somebody else would. But I don’t like them. One of my plans at one point was to give everything three stars.

But in the end, what happens when you come to a movie where there are things that are great, things that are not? What you want to do is discuss all those things.

If I look at the criticism that I really like now, it is discursive. It’s people talking about films, rather than judging films. That’s not to say there’s not an element of judgement: of course there is.

But look at the way Ebert would write about stuff, or Phillip French. Sometimes you’d get to the end of a review and someone will write in a below the line comment ‘yes, but did you like it?’ To which the answer is that’s not the point! The point is did you learn something about it? Were you engaged with it? Film criticism is secondary text stuff. The primary text is the film, the secondary text is writing about the film.

But if it’s film criticism in the form of a review, surely it’s a legitimate question at the bottom to ask ‘did you like it’?

Yes. But it’s also a legitimate thing to say I like it as much as I said in the review. Sometimes you can feel people dancing around judgement. And we’ve all been guilty of it. But there are other times where what you think about something cannot be expressed by ‘I like it’ or ‘I don’t like it’. It’s just not that simple.

That said, yes, you do have to be honest about your gut feeling. But it is all personal. That’s the other thing: objective film criticism is just nonsense. Film criticism is not objective. In the end, whether it worked for you or not is utterly subjective.

As I get older, I find myself walking out of more films, asking what I thought of it, and concluding I have no idea.

Yeah, but that’s a perfectly legitimate response. I used the phrase in a review once which was ‘writing this review, I find that I liked the film more than I thought’. And I did. It was as I was writing it.

I came out of Inherent Vice, and as I was walking from the screening, some young critic – pleasant and enthusiastic – said ‘What do you think?’ And all I could say was ‘Wait, too soon!’

It wasn’t because I wanted to protect my thoughts. I didn’t know! It was two days before I could actually start to piece together what I did think of it.

You’ve talked in the past about ‘first but wrong’.

That’s a big thing for me.

We’ve touched in the past on the PR industry, that is pushing for faster and faster reactions. We get texts as we leave press screenings now, asking for a reaction that can be sent back to the studio.

After a certain amount of time – I don’t really do instant reactions – they stop asking you.

Yet we’re being pushed to Tweet, to give a Facebook reaction, to give some kind of quick reaction.

But I don’t. One of the reasons I don’t do that is that my living is the reviews. If I blow it online beforehand, then what’s the point? This is what I do for a living!

Yet to people coming into the industry, and to new websites, the carrot that’s dangled is getting a poster quote.

Of course.

We’ve talked about the anticipation quote before – where we’re asked to give a quote hyping up a film we’ve not seen, which then ends up on the poster. And lots of that goes on. It’s commonplace.

It really is, and I think that’s very difficult. I think it’s harder now for film journalists starting out, because those pressures are there, and it’s harder to have your voice heard.

And it’s harder to just do the thing that we all used to, which was spend a couple of years in the regionals learning the trade. The first film poster I ever got quoted on, I must have been writing reviews for four years before it happened. And when it happens you go, oh, I’ve arrived! And then you… hmmm.

Somebody said recently that I never get quoted on posters. And I was kind of rather proud of that. That I don’t. I genuinely don’t, partly because I never answer the emails asking for instant reactions but partly because, as you know, being quoted on posters is…

… a double-edged sword?

Sometimes a single-edged sword. Sometimes there’s only a downside to it.

I can relate fully to the thrill of the first time. It was Rango.

The cartoon?

I think you mean the animated feature.

Sorry, sorry! Yeah! Rango, rather than Django!

But how does a critic, particularly a new one, stay apart from the marketing pressure? Is that possible if you need access to see films in the first place?

It’s definitely true that the longer you’ve been doing it for, the more possible that is. I’m in a really privileged position that I don’t really get hassled by that stuff any more. Part of me thinks okay, I’ve kind of earned that right. For better or worse, whether you think I’m any good at what I do or not, I’m the film critic for The Observer and for the BBC. I’ve got to a point where I’ve been left alone to get on with it, and that’s great.

What you do is you slowly wall yourself off from it. I think it would be very different if you were starting out. The only thing I’d say to anyone starting out is that you need to be careful of those things. They get in the way.

It comes back to what you said earlier on, which is half of what you do is selling it. And that’s probably more true now than it ever was before. When I started in film criticism, not everyone wanted to write film reviews. You think ‘everyone will want to do this’, and you go to a screening and there are three people. It’s a funny little profession.

It’s changed. It’s definitely changed. I’m not saying it’s changed for the worse, because every generation says ‘oh it used to be worse’. But it is different. And all those things that you’re talking about are things that I would be very afeared of. And I’m in a very, very lucky position, and I don’t have to deal with them anymore.

Everyone wants to review Guardians Of The Galaxy though, and nobody wants to review Moshi Monsters

Well that’s nuts. You have to do both. And I’ll draw you back to the example that Kim Newman always gave. When you started writing, you had to go through the shit before they let you loose on a proper film. And that meant you had to go to the trade shows of the cut down porn films, that were playing in Soho. The ones that didn’t make any sense before somebody cut them. Then they made even less sense once they’d had all the sex scenes cut out of them. And then you had to write a review of them with a plot synopsis that made sense. And you had to do that before you were allowed to embark upon writing a review of a big movie.

If you think that you can see Guardians Of The Galaxy and not see Moshi Monsters, then you’re not doing it properly. Doing the job properly means seeing as much as is possible. If you just cherry pick the big releases, any fool can look at Schindler’s List and say that’s a really important, well made film. It takes something else to look at Piranha Women In The Avocado Jungle Of Death and decide whether it’s any good. And incidentally, it is.

I can’t believe I’ve never asked you this before, then. Last question: what’s your favourite Jason Statham film?

Well I really love Transporter 3. It’s probably the wrong one to like. It’s the one where he has to do a striptease on top of a cliff with a shiny black truck and a Russian woman. And she makes him to do the striptease.

One of the things I like about it, and I like Jason Statham, is that sequence seemed to me to be an admission that he knows exactly what he’s doing, and he’s willing to laugh at himself, and do it in a way that’s really funny.

I was writing a piece for The Observer some time ago, when Eastern Promises came out. And there’s that wrestling scene in the changing room in it. It’s interesting: it ties into Women In Love. And they said let’s do a little piece about that, about naked male wrestling.

So I said yeah, actually the best one is the one in one of those Statham movies where he has to wrestle a bunch of guys but there’s oil all over the floor…

… the first Transporter!

Okay. So I went onto Google and put in ‘Jason Statham stripped male oil wrestling’. All I can tell you is: don’t go there. There are entire sites dedicated to Jason’s oily wrestling.

And then the thing comes up that says ‘if you enjoyed this, why not try this’. It was one of those things where I just didn’t know what a world of pain was out there…!

Mark Kermode, thank you very much.

Hatchet Job is available in paperback now. Mark’s latest book on Silent Running is also out now.

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