Logline: When a 19 year old boy is sent to prison, he is taken under the wing of a violent, chess playing armed robber. On release, the young man repays this protection by busting his mentor out of prison and joining him on a heist that soon turns to game of cat and mouse.
Director: Julius Avery
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Brenton Thwaites, Alicia Vikander, Matt Nable
This film is the worst. The worst. It’s actually everything that’s wrong with Australian films.
Every year I go to the London Film Festival to see one film with a friend. The film choice is random, sushi is eaten, good times are had by all. This years pick was Son of a Gun, the first feature from a director whose short films have done well at festivals like Cannes, and which means that he is a prime candidate for funding in Australia. Maybe this isn’t a bad first feature? I know that there are plenty of people who will enjoy the setting, the incredible cinematography and the really good performances, but I suspect that they will be the kind of people who think all Australians are convicts and only like films where there are car chases, explosions and where all the female characters work in strip clubs.
Of course, I really like car chase and explosion movies. I also like gangster films, which is what this film essentially is. What I don’t like are generic scripts that lack originality and seem to have about four places where they should logically conclude, but instead, keep going til you start checking your phone to make sure you’re not going to miss the last train. This film is a cliche British gangster script, attempting to disguise its mediocrity by being set in Western Australia and having an A list name on the poster. What bothers me is that the bar is so low for Australian films that people are seeing this as a sign that the industry is “improving” somehow or heading in a new direction. (It’s like the New Wave never happened) I feel that a film should be judged on it’s merits, not because you want to give it an encouragement award.
So the things that stood out for me: the only female character, what was her name again? I checked on IMDB: apparently she doesn’t have one. Which makes sense. Even though she’s a major motivation for the protagonists actions, since he is entranced by her, she’s basically a cliche stripper with a heart of gold, who exists to be rescued, to get naked and be a cause for personal change in the main character. It’s a real shame, because Alicia Vikander brings a great deal of beauty and warmth to the role, she’s really good. Surely her character deserves to be named?
Secondly, there’s a plot device that JR (played by Brenton Thwaites) can’t swim: what Australian can’t swim? I grew up in Australia, and it was compulsory to learn how to swim. In fact, learning was unavoidable. Too many children had drowned in backyard pools for it not to be a rule that your child had to learn how and there were also loads of sports days and events based around it in schools. I never met someone who didn’t know how to swim til I left the country. But OK, if we decide to go with him not being able to swim, this guy spends quite a bit of time standing next to pools, taking romantic moonlit swims and going out on the water, in a boat, without a life jacket…
Thirdly, the Russian Mafia are the bad guys. … OK, I know that Melbourne is the “Organised Crime Capital” of Australia, but I never knew we had a huge problem with organised crime in Western Australia, especially the Russian mafia. (Or more accurately, Russian criminals who sort of appear to be of indeterminate Mediterranean descent. Vikander is Swedish, for Christs sake! But OK, they pull this crap in Taken as well and I put up with it then) I thought this was really interesting, having lived in a few different parts of the country and never having met a Russian before I moved to Europe. I had no idea we had this problem. In fact… I’m pretty sure the Russians being the bad guys is a generic function of 80’s action flicks and cliche gangster films from the UK. So it’s a pretty lazy choice to have them as the antagonists here.
Another thing that kept nagging at me was this: though the plot ensures that JR is in danger frequently, nothing bad ever really happens to him without something or someone quickly intervening. I was wondering, was the writer a bit attached to him and couldn’t face him getting hurt? I mean, he comes across as a nice guy, I didn’t want to see him get hurt either. But everytime he is in danger, the rescue was pretty quick to follow.
The thing is, there’s some really good stuff here. This film excels whenever there are action scenes. The car chases and heists, the early scenes in the prison, including the escape, are all excellent. But there are not enough of them to save this film. The performances are all really good, as I said above, which saves a great deal of the scenes from being too dull, though it’s not enough to hide the characters paper-thin motivations and back stories (without spoiling it, there’s one character who is incredibly easily convinced to switch sides, for example). There are some great, darkly comic moments which work quite well. The plot could do with a lot of editing to make it more streamlined, there’s a lot that could simply be cut or trimmed to keep the emphasis on moving the plot forward, especially in prison early on and the last third, which waffles and loses it’s way somewhat. What might also help is placing the main character in some real danger and seeing how he gets out of it. Sure, some teenage boys are going to enjoy this. In fact, if you are the kind of person who isn’t too bright and only likes gangster films, this will also please you. But this isn’t a good film.