Saturday 20 April 2013

Down and Dangerous (2013)

Director: Zak Forsman
Stars: John T Woods, Paulie Rojas, Ross Marquand and Judd Nelson
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
Of all the features I saw at the Phoenix Film Festival this year, Down and Dangerous was the only one I saw twice. The first time turned out to be the world première and the theatre was sold out, so I got to look up at the screen from the third row. I enjoyed it anyway, but when I got the chance to revisit it a few days later from a much better seat, I jumped at the chance. I also wanted to see if it played as well once I knew how it all went down and for the most part it did. Rather than lose impact with knowledge of the plot in hand, it felt more like an old friend. In fact it felt more like a very old friend, as if this was an eighties picture I'd loved as a teenager and was returning to after a couple of decades. It's theoretically contemporary, without any particular focus on time, but the excellent electronic score by Deklan, which kicks in before we have visuals, transports us to the eighties immediately and the style of the film remains compatible with that throughout.

It's not a great film, for reasons that mostly tie to budget, but it's certainly a good film, one that I can see myself returning to again and again over the years. The one flaw not sourced in budget is inherent, namely that the hero is a drug smuggler. Sure, he's an ethical smuggler, who conjures up imaginative schemes that allow everyone involved to be able to walk away, even if caught red handed. Sure, he's up against guys who are notably worse than him. Sure, the whole point of the film is to spin a fictional tale about a factual person, Zachary Swan, whose brief career smuggling cocaine was documented in the book Snowblind. Swan, who was 'uniquely principled for this line of work' was the father of Zak Forsman, who wrote and directed this film. Clearly, it's a story he needed to tell, but nonetheless it's really tough to sell a cocaine smuggler as a hero. Fortunately the drugs are something of a MacGuffin and could have been pretty much anything else.

I've mentioned budget a few times, so I should dig a little deeper on that front. Forsman raised his budget on Kickstarter, exceeding his $30,000 goal and eventually spending more like $40,000 on the picture. That's not a lot of money, especially when the obvious comparisons are with Michael Mann pictures like Manhunter and Heat. No, it's not in the same class as either of those films, but it's worthy of comparison and it cost a fraction what they did. I also enjoyed it a heck of a lot more than Public Enemies and that cost $100m. This really is a Michael Mann movie on a thousandth of the budget, exactly the sort of film that I've been jonesing for since the digital revolution promised an unending stream of low budget movies to challenge their bigger budgeted cousins. The stream turned out to be more of a trickle, but every once in a while someone who hasn't been noticed yet turns out to have the skills to make something big and the soul to make something worthy.

Forsman's success here starts with his script, as the various plot strands are all built around a set of characters who we want to know more about. It's a complex story but not too complex, starting by grabbing our interest, building through character and location, then ending up with those plot strands tied up neatly in time for the credits after a quick hour and a half. The characters are well defined and easily delineated and we want to know more about all of them, not only the leads but many of those who don't get an opportunity to shine too as the story doesn't have time to stretch as far as the bit players. Unlike many drug films, this one drew me in, perhaps because it's really about people. The only catch to pulling us in this deeply is that the writing does get sloppier the further away from the focal points we get, that second viewing highlighting a few issues with characters on the fringes that aren't immediately obvious unless you have sharp eyes.
The key plot strand follows a character who goes by the name of Paul Boxer. It isn't his real name, which he keeps private even from us, but it's the one he's using as he sets up his latest scam. This is an intriguing affair, one which goes a long way to securing our interest for the duration. He slips a winning ticket for a fake promotion into a box of tampons in a grocery store, waits for the phone call and sends a couple of girls on a cruise up the coast from Ensenada. Naturally, they're entirely unaware that the gift bag he gives them is full of cocaine, cunningly concealed in tourist trap gifts. Meeting them on their return to the States to take photos, it's a simple trick to replace those gifts on the sly with empty equivalents. If the ingenuity of this approach doesn't grab us, Elliot Reid is there to ensure it. Boxer usually works alone, but this scam needed a partner and Reid fit the bill. Unfortunately he tries to sell his cut of the drugs to a hitman and is nearly killed for his trouble.

Clearly the game is getting more and more dangerous, as Reid isn't the first of his colleagues to be shot by this particular hitman; he's just the first one Boxer manages to save. So, a pitch by a DEA special agent called Arturo Rezendes to help take down Rafael Garza, the Mexican drug lord behind these hits, eventually resonates enough for him to switch sides. We can't be sure exactly when it happens, as it presumably isn't when he's offered 12% of whatever's seized at the end of the operation, but it does give us a bad guy turned good guy taking down a drug lord, avenging fallen colleagues and earning enough money to retire on, all with one final run across the border. What may sell it to him is romance, as Garza's girl turns out to be Olivia Ivarra, the girl he should have ended up with long ago but whom he lost because he can't trust anyone, not even with his real name. It's apparently a small world in the smuggling business.

Of course, it isn't enough to write a story that's fundamentally rooted in characters if you don't have actors who can bring those characters to life. Forsman's next success was with his casting, because each of the key actors proved to be more than capable. In fact, the weakest link may be the film's most famous actor, though not through any fault of his own. With the film entirely shot, Forsman wanted to add a big name to the project and the net he cast pulled in Judd Nelson. As Boxer's incarcerated mentor, he appears in two brief scenes with his protégé but that really isn't enough to do much more than achieve the goal of the exercise, to add his name to the cast list. What impressed me most about the casting is that I've seen a number of these actors before in smaller roles but, with one exception, I'm far more likely to remember them from this film. They each make their presence known as part of a solid ensemble cast but don't steal the show.

John T Woods is most prominent as Boxer and it's good to see him playing a leading role. The last time I saw him was in Ray Karwel's sci-fi action thriller, Time Again, in which he was stuck playing the entire LAPD in support to Angela Rachelle. I liked that picture, which had a great deal of heart, but it struggled to escape being seen as a 'low budget movie' and failed, even with $125,000 to play with. Down and Dangerous had a mere third of that but transcends its budget immediately and emphatically to appear a much bigger film. After the festival, I followed up with Mega Snake, in which he has a lot of fun in another prominent supporting slot, demonstrating his range with a much looser performance. He does well with Boxer's contradictions, ably appearing to be both a nice guy and a bad guy, which is a neat trick to pull off. Perhaps he could have been darker, to reflect his trade, but that would have lessened his stature as the hero of the piece.
I've seen his leading lady before too. Paulie Rojas was a memorable water nymph in Folklore, the quirky fantasy picture that screened in competition at last year's International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival, the sister of the Phoenix Film Festival, in which Down and Dangerous was in competition this year. Even with her brief performance in Folklore, it was impossible not to compare her to the Audreys, Hepburn and Tautou, and the same comparisons sprang out immediately here too, as a very different character indeed. Rojas is a pixie who has mastered the classic skill of knowing how to pose just so while making it seem entirely natural throughout. She works well with Woods here, though they do share a cringeworthy, if fortunately brief, moment in the finalé that really ought to be cut. I'm surprised to find that I haven't seen her biggest picture, as Dorothy in Dorothy and the Witches of Oz last year, alongside many household names. I'll have to remedy that.

I'm less familiar with the actors supporting them, though they do well here. Ross Marquand is the most prominent, having acted opposite a number of Oscar nominees, and he's believably sleazy as Henry Langlois, the hitman who has quite a history, though not enough to suggest a tie to the phantom of the Cinémathèque Française, Henri Langlois. I have to wonder though, as names are important in this film, with Boxer owning many but keeping his real one a secret, some sourced from those pledging larger amounts on Kickstarter and at least one being an admitted homage, Gabrio Ugarte a take on Peter Lorre's character in Casablanca. Luis Robledo, who's made at least one previous film with Marquand, A Lonely Place for Dying, gets less to do as a DEA special agent but he's refreshingly capable and honest while doing it. Ernest Curcio is also notable as the drug lord, Rafael Garza, though he only has a few previous credits and isn't given much background.

After the script and the actors, Forsman brought in the style and it's truly astounding how much he brought, given that he only had a six man crew. The Michael Mann comparisons aren't merely because of the subject matter and the soundtrack, they're obvious in the way the shots were set up and the use of architecture and locations. The opening scene, with Langlois shooting a drug dealer dead at a major crossroads in Los Angeles, the surrounding traffic routing itself around the obstacle without caring why it's there, is quintessential Mann, playing with the city as a character. Deklun's score merely underlines that comparison with emphasis. The film was shot in 36 days at 24 locations, which massively aids that big budget feel. This is far from set bound; we're out and about experiencing the big picture in two countries. The only location to disappoint was Garza's compound, an appropriate building but one which deserved more henchmen and more stuff.

Second time through, I realised how there's less action in the film than there seems to be, as the sustained tension and the impressive editing by Jamie Cobb keeps things moving at such a pace that it builds in our minds not just on the screen. The physical fights are quick and efficient and I liked them very much. Woods works some like he's Tony Jaa in Ong-Bak and immediately moves on like he's Tom Hardy in Warrior. The gunplay is better when it's framed well, the hits and chase far more believable than the scene at the border, which stoops to an old cliché as an homage. The tone is what's surprising here. This remains accessible, never becoming an ordeal like drug films often do, never becoming nasty even with a brief torture scene and never losing its direction to distractions. No, the Mormons are hardly going to praise it but combining a strong story, a strong score and strong editing with a strong set of performances makes it a very strong film indeed.

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