Crime films are a staple of the Australian film diet: the cinematic equivalent of potato or dairy. The country’s first feature length film (and indeed the world’s) was 1906’s The Story of the Kelly Gang, one of many film accounts of Ned and company’s anti-heroic exploits. The genre’s still going strong 110+ years later: the last twenty years especially have produced a bumper crop of Australian crime stories with Two Hands, Chopper, The Hard Word, Gettin’ Square, The Square, and Animal Kingdom, and that’s discounting television, where the genre’s equally fruitful. A cursory survey of films covered on Down Under Flix during its two year tenure reveals a booty of films centred on outlaws – from 1981 gem Hoodwink to 2013’s Felony via a Melbourne gangland Macbeth, siege drama Mr Reliable, prison drama Ghosts… of the Civil Dead, and a rather ornate iteration of the Ned Kelly legend – and I could fill another half year of programming on this genre alone. I won’t, because I appreciate some variety in my viewing diet, but below are short takes on three very different crime films, in which criminal protagonists are cast in the guises of tragic heroes, dangerous figures, Aussie battlers, and Falstaffian buffoons.
Director: Pauline Chan
Stars: Guy Pearce, Zhu Lin, Claudia Karvan, Rhys Muldoon, Lincoln Lewis
In 2011’s 33 Postcards, Mei Mei (Zhu Lin) is a Chinese orphan sponsored by an Australian benefactor, with whom she corresponds via postcards. When her orphanage choir makes the pilgrimage to Australia, she goes to visit her sponsor, only to find that Dean (Guy Pearce) is a convict serving a prison sentence. The film chronicles their developing friendship and Dean’s efforts to protect both himself behind bars and Mei from his criminal acquaintances outside the prison walls.
Pauline Chan’s film is an earnest, empathetic character study that wears its heart proudly on its sleeve, and its sincerity compensates for some of its shortcomings. Dating the Enemy coupling Pearce and Claudia Karvan (as Dean’s lawyer) are characteristically solid, and while Mei’s innocence to the world is perhaps laid on too thick at times (though maybe that’s jut the cynical Australian in me talking) leaving Zhu Lin without much nuance to work with, the actress holds her own against the industry stalwarts. There’s never a palpable sense that things are going to go truly awry for Mei or Dean (Geoffrey Wright’s 33 Postcards, in contrast, I’d be terrified to fork over money for), but Chan and company nonetheless build tension and generate ample human drama.
Director: Julius Avery
Stars: Ewan McGregor, Brenton Thwaites, Alicia Vikander, Tom Budge, Matt Nable, Eddie Baroo
Where 33 Postcards is first and foremost a human drama with crime film elements, 2014’s Son of a Gun is a more traditional meat & potatoes crime movie with a tougher edge. It carries more than a whiff of the previously reviewed Hoodwink, with its macho tone, and Felony, with its imported UK star adding gravitas to the local cast: Tom Wilkinson there, Ewan McGregor here. McGregor is one of the best actors of his vintage and a guy who never really got the big career wind expected, arguably due to the taint of headlining the Star Wars prequels. Watching him in recent years in fare like Last Days in the Desert, Jane Got a Gun, Our Kind of Traitor, Fargo, and T2: Trainspotting, there’s a whole lot of charisma and chops still being tapped. He’s consistently good and does strong work here as Brendan Lynch, a veteran criminal doing a life sentence behind bars. Under his wing falls JR (Brenton Thwaites), a vulnerable young convict serving a six month prison term. In exchange for Brendan’s protection, JR helps break him out of prison after he’s released, and the pair team up to steal gold bricks from a Karlgoorlie mining operation. However, complications arise when JR embarks on an affair with their boss’s mistress, Tasha (recent Oscar winner Alicia Vikander, one year before her breakout roles in Ex Machina and The Danish Girl).
Son of a Gun is a sturdy thriller that benefits from McGregor’s gravitas, nice turns from Thwaites and Vikander, muscular direction by Julius Avery, and some solid production value. I’ve commented in the past about the tendency among some Australian films to be overly tentative and hesitant – a label one could easily apply to 33 Postcards – something which Adrian Martin describes as Australian cinema’s “chronic understatement”. However, Son of a Gun has no qualms about being mainstream entertainment with a healthy dose of grit and blunt force. It’s not transcendent genre fare like Animal Kingdom, but it’s a satisfying and functional thriller. However, that didn’t bolster its commercial prospects: the film spent a week in 53 Australian theatres, opening in the number 15 slot and grossing only $56,588. American thrillers also playing that week on significantly higher screen counts and pulling in more cash included Gone Girl, A Walk Among the Tombstones, and The Equalizer. Whilst none of those titles are slouches, I think Son of a Gun holds its own in that company.
While Son of a Gun’s under-performance speaks loudly to ongoing issues with the poor distribution and promotion of local films, I think some blame resides with local audiences. Australians are generally reliable at sniffing out a ‘great’ Australian film: when Australia puts out an Animal Kingdom or a Sweet Country or a Lion, we’re generally good at seeking them out. But when Australia puts out a simply ‘good’ film, audiences are slower on the uptake. We’re more likely to take a chance on or settle for an American film that’s merely ‘good’, or much of the time less than ‘good’; but with Australian films it’s not enough for a film to just be ‘good’, it has to be exemplary to warrant the pilgrimage to the cinema. That’s a disservice to a film like Son of a Gun, which is just as good as any ‘good’ American film, but won’t be sought out the same way. Ultimately, audiences and distributors need to meet halfway to ensure ‘good’ films don’t fall through the cracks.
Director: Matthew George
Stars: Lachy Hulme, Bill Kerr, Alex Dimitriades, Craig McLachlan, Wayne Hassell
Where 33 Postcards and Son of a Gun focus on blue collar criminals, Let’s Get Skase takes as its inspiration Australia’s most notorious white collar criminal, Christopher Skase. This 2001 men-on-a-mission comedy helmed by Matthew George (who hasn’t directed since, but was one of 25 producers listed on the acclaimed Wind River) revolves around a plot to abduct billionaire pariah Skase from his exotic offshore hideaway and bring him back to Australia to face criminal charges. Peter Dellesandro (Lachy Holme) is tasked with recruiting and leading this posse, including firebrand Danny D’Amato (Alex Dimitriades) and seasoned soldier Mitchell Vendieks (Bill Kerr), but faces opposition from conspiring elites and opportunistic reality TV bounty hunter Eric Carney (Craig McLachlan).
There’s a long tradition of Australian battlers and underdogs taking aim at the corrupt elites – see, for example, The Castle or Barry McKenzie Holds His Own – so it was inevitable that filmmakers would eventually take aim at Christopher Skase. But to paraphrase Jurassic Park’s Ian Malcolm, just because filmmakers could doesn’t mean that they should. The comedies built to last – think Some Like it Hot, Duck Soup, Airplane, The General, Annie Hall, to name just a handful – have a certain built-in timelessness that surpasses the topical concerns and fashions of the day, while comedies that date quickest tend to be reactive: there’s a reason why Epic Movie, Disaster Movie, Superhero Movie, Meet the Spartans, and other lampoons of films not even 5 minutes old have (thankfully) faded into oblivion. While superior to any of those rank offerings, the fact remains that a film about a plot to abduct Christopher Skase inherently wasn’t built for repeat comedic value through the ages. Alas, the film didn’t even have a chance to be topical on its release: the real Skase died a few months before its brief theatrical window, putting it alongside Rambo 3 – in which Rambo decimated the Russian military while the Cold War was thawing offscreen – in the pantheon of unfashionably late productions.
Of course, if the jokes landed that wouldn’t be a problem, but the comedy is mostly middling. The cast are fine, with Hulme (who’s also credited as co-writer) in particular digging into what on paper must have looked like a fully-formed star-making role, but Let’s Get Skase is plagued by the same problems as many of the comedies of the noughties, as discussed here, here, here, here, and here: it’s neither fish nor fowl, and lacks sufficient venom in its fangs. There’s some value in Let’s Get Skase as a curio artefact, and billionaire pariahs are certainly still newsworthy, but ultimately this is more miss than hit.