Friday, May 11, 2012

Film Pairings — Crime Novels On Film: James Sallis And Ken Bruen

Criminals with standards?  No, not like “rob from the rich, give to the poor.”  More like “I won’t actually rob anybody, but I’ll drive the get away car.” Once you get beyond the notion of “a little bit criminal” you can’t help but be seduced by the surprisingly similar stories in these two fine films. Each petty criminal, as the pressure escalates to pick a side (good or evil), finds it more and more difficult to resist. And in the spirit of noir, contemporary noir to be sure, they find that noble choices may not be rewarded.

The film, London Boulevard, based on the dark, literary and prolific Irish crime writer Ken Bruen’s novel, was all but panned by American reviewers.  The film Drive, on the other hand, based on the dark, literary and prolific American crime writer James Sallis’ novel, received high praise.  I could perhaps understand why critics might dislike both of them. Dark and violent.  Or love both of them.  Great story telling. What I do not understand is why one is damned and one is praised.  Both stories fascinate.  The acting, directing and cinematography are top-notch in both films.  So, please someone clue me in.

Perhaps it is that London Boulevard (2010) brings with it a British sensibility that Americans may find difficult to relate to.  The gangsters are a little different.  Both the top hood and the young thug talk about literature amidst grotesque and quite often senseless violence.  Colin Farrell, who plays the young, and redeemable thug, is gradually seduced into protecting a beautiful celebrity while also trying (nobly) to avenge the mind-numbingly unnecessary murder of a homeless man he had befriended. Farrell is solid as the young man who tries to find a way to escape his previous entanglements with the mob.  Ray Winstone does his usual fine job, this time as the psychopathic gang leader.  However the grandly indifferent — perhaps most malevolent — character, portrayed by David Thewlis, puts the story over the top (in a good way) — and leaves us with perhaps too much interest in the parts of his life that are untold. I want the next movie to be about him.  Credit goes to the writers who created the character and Thewlis who is pitch perfect.  Keira Knightley plays the delicately beautiful celebrity in need of Farrell’s protection. William Monahan wrote the screenplay and directed.

Drive (2011) was a hit, not the blockbuster producers apparently anticipated, but a tough, tight, compelling movie nonetheless. It made a lot of money.  Credit certainly goes to Ryan Gosling who plays a character in a dilemma similar to Farrell’s in London Boulevard.  In this case we have a seemingly amoral loner whose only passion is driving.  He is a reluctant hero.  The last thing he would ever want is to be put in a position to make a decision having to do with the lives of other people.  In that sense, he is farther removed from society than Farrell’s character. But he makes a serious mistake.  He gets involved.  There are also some very fine secondary characters.  At the top of that list is Albert Brooks, who plays a businessman and second-rate gangster. Like Thewlis in London Boulevard, a whole movie could be made by spinning off Brooks’ complex character.  Ron Perlman does a good job as Brooks’ more violent partner.  And Bryan Cranston continues to show what a fine actor he is as Gosling’s not quite up to snuff mentor. Good to see Russ Tamblyn (West Side Story) play a role in this striking film. Nicholas Winding Refn, a Dane, directed.

There’s no question that Gosling’s character is the strong, silent type (a lot of screen time, but not a lot of lines to memorize).  However, his performance is mesmerizing. His character knows what’s coming. So do we. It’s a fine ending, but no surprise to him or us. Farrell realizes the danger he is putting himself in and does what he needs to do anyway however he is surprised by how it ends.  And so are we.  Two very worthwhile, but extremely violent films that are meant to be seen together or at least discussed in tandem.

Beer, I think, is night’s choice.  Lots of pub drinking in London Boulevard. And if I remember correctly, there were lots of cans of beer in Drive. So this time, just pick your favorite brand.

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