Stars: Celia Muir, Darren Bransford, Lee Cheney, Kate Loustau, Brian Levine and James Privett
I had a great time watching Dead in France, though I'm not sure precisely what Brian Levine and Kris McManus really wanted it to be. Levine produced, took the lead role and co-wrote, under the pseudonym of Jack Hillgate, with director McManus, who also shot and edited the picture. A quote on the poster suggests it's 'Tarantino meets Ritchie', but that's misleading as the similarities are superficial: sure, it's a story about hitmen, which introduces its disparate characters through title cards and spins them gradually together, but the tone is utterly different. Any Tarantino reference is limited to profanity and gore, as without bad language this would feel like an old Ealing comedy, underlined by the choice to shoot in black and white. There's also a lot of quiet here that suggests a Jacques Tati influence, emphasised by the opening credits, slow pace and its setting on the Côte d'Azur. Perhaps I'm impressed because these influences aren't remotely compatible but it works.
Levine plays Charles, a quiet and polite gentleman who wouldn't even kill a wasp. Except that he's a talented and experienced hitman, who's about to retire after his hundredth job. He's methodical, partly through clearly having OCD, and he looks the part, wearing the requisite Jason Statham lack of hair. For all his skills, though, none of them appear to be social. His superb first scene with Lisa, half confident experience and half social nerves, underlines that. We can't initially tell if he's hiring a prostitute or a mail order bride, but she turns out to be a cleaner, an outspoken Essex girl in a bikini to contrast her boss's relentless calm and traditional suit. Both of them contrast madly with her boyfriend, Denny, a wiry party animal with tattoos and a mohawk but no manners who shows up to do her in every conceivable position in every conceivable location in Charles's house and grounds. Some of these scenes are a little long, but they are at least shot imaginatively.
Gradually a number of stories come together. Charles is one, as he aims to follow up his century of hits with retirement, a large yacht and a girl with which to sail off into the sunset. Lisa and Denny are another, as they begin to spin scams of increasing idiocy while they have Charles's place to themselves. Burgess, a retired hitman whose wife is Charles's final job, becomes the third. This introduces a couple of million pounds into the equation to become the MacGuffin of the piece. A further hitman, or hitwoman, whatever the technical term is for a foul mouthed crazy bitch of a professional killer, makes four. She's Clancy, and she's unlike Charles in every way, except for her job, though she's as relentlessly as wild as he's in control. To make it a half dozen subplots we're gifted with Simon and Raymond, a con man and a thief respectively. They're a pair of brothers, small time crooks looking for that one big time score, and they might just have found it.
Naturally, all these characters intersect in inventive ways that keep us guessing as to where it's all going to end up, which turns out to be both believable and appropriate, yet not precisely what we might expect. That might sound like praise for a complex plot, but this film isn't really about plot, as steady and reliable as its storyline is. While Levine and McManus certainly borrowed from early Guy Ritchie movies, they only took the framework, that sort of jigsaw puzzle approach to scripting, but either couldn't or wouldn't cast the quantity of characters needed to obfuscate it substantially enough to keep us truly on our toes. There are a few smaller parts here and there and some of the actors who play them even have key reasons to be in the movie, but for the most part, it's the key folk from those six subplots interacting with each other through plot convenience. Going just from what you see in this film, you might be forgiven for believing that the Côte d'Azur is 95% British.
I get the impression that it started with the characters, and while a vaguely complicated plot was spun around them, it ended with the characters too. It's not that they're particularly deep, though a few have their depths, it's that they're all connected by being Brits abroad, while otherwise not having much in common at all. They're a very diverse and well delineated set of principals and all the actors cast got plenty of opportunity to flesh them out. Levine keeps the deepest character for himself, with the most screen time, but his quiet man routine ensures that most of his scenes are easily stolen out from under him. He gets few great lines and his deliberately subdued portrayal is so underdone that after his introductory scenes, he quickly becomes something of a background, not a background character but a background set, against which everyone else gets to strut their respective stuff. He's the straight man who everyone else bounces off.
If Charles, who we surely care about more than anyone else, for all that he's murdered a hundred people for money, is the most underacted character, his opposite is clearly Denny. Darren Bransford is so completely obnoxious as Denny that most audience members are likely to care about him the least, but he goes hog wild with the character so that we never want to ignore him. Certainly most of the magic little moments in the movie are focused around him: Denny and the door, Denny and the pool, Denny and the cat... It would be hilarious to find that he's really a mild mannered gentleman in real life, because it feels like the advice he was given here was to shove a six pack of Duracell up his jacksie and never stop moving, never stop swearing and never stop pissing off his girlfriend in every way possible. He's like the Energizer Bunny, if the Energizer Bunny grew up in the slums of Liverpool acutely allergic to social graces.
In between is everyone else. Celia Muir, who is technically top billed, is a delight as Lisa. She was one of many actors to return from Kris McManus's previous feature, 2011's Travellers, and it's not surprising to see a director want to keep her. She manages to play Lisa as a slapper of little brain, but somehow enough charm and substance to escape her Essex girl stereotype. Lee Cheney and James Privett are solid as the small time hucksters, utterly out of their depth throughout but blind to the possibility that they won't win out in the end. Only Simon's first scene with Charles is taken to absurd heights, so overdone that it feels like a comedy sketch. Kate Loustau finishes up the major cast as Clancy, an outrageously over the top portrayal almost as obnoxious as Bransford's Denny. However, Clancy has a talent underneath her foul mouthed exterior, one she's more than willing to use. For all her many faults, she's rarely a fool, while Denny is rarely anything else.
With all these colourful characters competiting for our attention, with Charles grounding them all, it can't have been rocket science to throw them memorable moments and lines to work with. Not all of them go to Bransford, including perhaps my favourite, which is gifted to a bit part character, played by Chris Manns, in a flashback. 'You got problems, Big Chris?' he's asked on an intercom, only to answer, 'Yeah, Ian's head just exploded.' While it's not important in the grand scheme of things, this scene ably highlights the very British black comedy which underpins the entire script, as well as the capable and extremely gory effects work, which would have given any horror movie a run for its money if only it hadn't been shot in black and white. Much of it is clearly gratuitous, not that I'm complaining, and the eventual death count would have the antagonist in any slasher movie reeling in envy.
I have no idea how well Dead in France is going to do, but I'm guessing that it won't do as well as it should. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I've watched it twice, but I tried it out with a couple of lads from the next generation and they didn't even finish it. I'm sure the pace is part of it, much slower than they would expect for an action movie. The odd mixture of subtle character building and dark comedy with outrageous profanity, violence and gore may not have sat well with them either. The many easy comparisons like the quote on the poster are valid but none of them give a fair idea of what the feature as a whole really feels like. Sure, there's a lot taken from Guy Ritchie, but it's far from a Guy Ritchie film. It's just as far from a Tarantino movie, an Ealing comedy or a Jacques Tati picture, but there are just as many elements from those here. Maybe: written by Tati from a story by Ritchie, directed by Charles Crichton and produced by Eli Roth. Yeah, it's that unconventional.