There have presumably been, throughout history, many great adventures and heroes whose stories and identities have faded into obscurity. That may be as a result of their covert success and aversion of some greater peril or through the deliberate suppression of information to prevent further unrest or questions being asked. Conspiracy theorists have long imagined elaborate plots that include individuals who have been dead for decades actually being alive and the existence of extremely powerful shadow organizations operated by just a handful of people. Amsterdam chooses the latter route for its colorful, star-heavy, larger-than-life series of hijinks in the 1930s.
Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale), who lost his eye serving in WWI, practices as a doctor in New York City, mainly serving other veterans since his medical qualifications are in question. His lifelong friend and partner is Harold Woodsman (John David Washington), who asks him to perform a secretive autopsy on the suspiciously deceased senator who led their platoon in war. They soon find themselves embroiled in a web of deception and intrigue, reuniting them with the third member of their wartime pact, Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie), a nurse they last saw during their idyllic time spent in the city of Amsterdam.
This film comes from writer-director David O. Russell, whose previous string of films – The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, and Joy – have garnered overwhelming critical acclaim even while the filmmaker’s temper and treatment of his cast and crew have come under fire numerous times. His latest project, stacked with people seemingly eager to work with him despite his reputation, preserves the color and style of those works and brings in some of the zaniness of an earlier film, I Heart Huckabees, presented in a way that might be more digestible by a mainstream audience.
It’s staggering to see just how many performers there are to recognize in this cast. Past Russell collaborators like Bale and Robert De Niro return, along with new choices who are immediately ready to adapt to his approach and infuse their characters with just the right frantic energy and commitment. Best among them are Rami Malek and Anya Taylor-Joy as a powerful couple set on helping Burt and Harold pursue their investigation. Zoe Saldana and Andrea Riseborough also impress in roles that are far too small, but it’s hard to give everyone ample screen time with a cast this big.
The tone of Amsterdam is often hard to read as it fluctuates between campy and serious and then finds its comfortable middle ground in melodrama. At times, it feels like a parody action movie in the vein of The King’s Man, and at others like Inglourious Basterds, a film with over-the-top elements wrapped into a much more dramatic overarching story. Whether its narrative is meant to be taken literally isn’t of much consequence since the film, which runs a hefty 134 minutes, does manage to deliver an engaging viewing experience, intent on following a rollercoaster journey that begins at war and goes back and forth as memory and global conflicts play a part in the unraveling of the many factors involved in this plot.
Amsterdam feels like a movie designed to please a wide audience, which hasn’t been Russell’s approach in the past. There’s a surreal quality to the scenes and framing that reminds of American Hustle and Joy, and those characters that do get a substantial showcase in the narrative have the opportunity to truly express themselves through rapid-fire dialogue and witty batter. The decision to frame the storytelling with Bale’s Burt as a narrator doesn’t always work well, but it does add to the period mood that the film works hard to establish. Its costumes, sets, and cinematography do evoke an era from nearly a century ago, and the story contained within it is entertaining and involving it not all that enduring.
Amsterdam will be released in theaters on Friday, October 7th.