Friday, July 23, 2004

The Secret Life of Criminals

A review of I'll Sleep When I'm Dead and Ripley's Game

Today, a pair of recent thrillers. I'll Sleep When I'm Dead is the latest by director Mike Hodges, famous for his 1971 Michael Caine vehicle, Get Carter. I'll Sleep is the first re-teaming of Hodges with leading man Clive Owen since the excellent Croupier, a sleeper-hit in the US in 2000. The plot of the new film is a bit similar to Get Carter--in the criminal underworld, a man sets out to avenge his brother's death. Unfortunately, this film is a bit undercooked. It wastes a talented Marquee star, Charlotte Rampling (and, to a certain extent, Malcolm McDowell), and fails to flesh out the complex network of relationships in the story. Yet it's the kind of disappointment that can only come from a true talent. Hodges still has a strong ability to set the mood, the kind of chilly atmosphere best suited for revenge, and a dullish script can't keep should-be superstar Clive Owen from shining. (It's also one of the best noirish titles I've ever heard.) Also, the ever-talented Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (Velvet Goldmine, Bend it Like Beckham) is compelling in the first half hour. But the sexual politics of the storyline, which involves male rape, gives the film an irrelevant feel. Did you know men sometimes rape other men? And that it doesn't necessarily mean they are homosexual/bisexual? The violence is surprisingly tame, which suits me fine, but the problem is that the whole script's a little too tame. Perhaps the director overcompensates with an abrupt ending. You expect one more sequence to play out, but, in the filmmakers' defense, you do have enough information (especially given a brief narrational speech we hear twice) to deduce the ending. Still, you have to wonder, were they being provocative, or did they just get tired of the script themselves?

It's ironic that Ripley's Game, a much better film, failed to get distribution and recently went straight to DVD instead. Based on the work of novelist Patricia Highsmith's novel, the story picks up much later in Ripley's life from where we last saw him on the screen in The Talented Mr. Ripley. I haven't read the books, but this felt true to its source. The film is a refreshingly unpretentious genre pic. It's plot is so interesting that it doesn't have to employ any gimmicks like jumping around in time or using cheap symbolism. Ripley (played by John Malkovich--is that what Matt Damon will look like in 20 years?), long settled in his double life of criminal/murderer and jaded bon vivant, lives in Italy. A British criminal acquaintance looking to bump off some competitors in Germany comes to hire Ripley to do the job, but Ripley, having been offended by a rude remark at a dinner party, decides to have a bit of revenge in drafting his family-man neighbor to become the hired hit man. At first it works out fine, but things start to get out of hand. It's the perennial crime story problem: "I keep trying to get out, but they keep pulling me back in." Ripley decides to step in again and set things right, and something like a friendship (or, at least, an alliance) develops between the two men. It's one of the most original crime story scenarios I've seen in a long while, and the film has some excellent moments of simultaneous suspense and humor. Brisk, fascinating and easy to watch, I'd highly recommend it.



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