Sunday 18 January 2015

The Abducted (2009)

Director: Jon Bonnell
Stars: Kathleen Benner, James Ray, Michael Harrelson, Greg Joseph and Ashley Francis
I must have spent an hour chatting away with Jon Bonnell a year ago at DarkCon without realising who he was. When I did, I had to point out that a year earlier still, I'd slated a film he'd directed, though to be fair, I did defend it a little because it was merely awful, not the worst film ever made. He asked which film and when I replied, Star Quest: The Odyssey, he fully agreed with me about its lack of quality. He said that he had been hamstrung by the producer, who wanted to make a serious film; he knew it would have been a lot better played for laughs. At the end of that review, I had written off the film's writer, Carlos Perez, but suggested that I was willing to give Bonnell another chance by watching Match.Dead aka The Abducted. It's taken me two years because the copy I had was broken, but Bonnell himself gave me a DVD so that I could watch and review. While I'm grateful to him for that courtesy, it has no bearing on my views on the film, which are that it's flawed but much better than that other movie released the same year.

It's notable that this picture has also suffered from a slew of negative reviews on IMDb, albeit not quite to the same degree as its lesser sibling. It's easy to see why though: like Star Quest: The Odyssey it's a long way from what people expected. In this instance, it isn't the DVD covers that did the damage, it's the way writer Alyssa Alexandria plays with the genre. In 2009, this would have appeared like a torture porn, with a man, Ridley Thompson, holding a young lady, Valora Smith, captive for almost the entire running time. The catch is that there's no nudity, very little violence and even less gore. A few people do get killed, but not in any gratuitious fashion; we don't see heads blown off and we don't hear overblown death cries. It's a matter of fact thing and that surely disappointed people. One reviewer highlighted his priorities through rating it on gore, nudity, effects, story and comedy, in that order. Another actively complained about the lack of nudity, which he felt would have spiced it up considerably. They don't get the point.

The Abducted does have real problems but lack of nudity, violence and gore aren't anywhere on the list. I didn't have a problem with the talky nature of the piece, as it allowed both of the leads to sink their teeth into their roles. Kathleen Benner does a decent job, though I don't believe it's up to what she delivered in Running on Empty Dreams, but James Ray has an absolute blast. Out of the eight James Ray movies that I've reviewed thus far, this is surely my favourite of his roles because he's so clearly acting with relish. He does try for a sort of Clint Eastwood voice early on, which soon lapses, but for a character so dedicated to death he's stunningly alive. He's having more fun than almost anyone I know and he's consistently doing it throughout the entire movie, even when his captive is trying to kill him. He's so infuriatingly happy that we want to kill him too, but it makes him so much fun to watch. Ironically, my next favourite of his roles is probably Death Investigator Theodore Davis in The Last Responders, almost the exact opposite to this.
The most obvious problems stem from the lack of budget, which drives its restrictions. The vast majority of the picture unfolds on one property, for a start, which doesn't help the lack of variety in the script. The cast is also notably limited, with Ray and Benner fleshing out most of the running time on their own but with a little held back for Michael Harrelson as Valora's grandpa, who long ago set her on the path she needs to get out of this situation and who's searching for her now. Only two other actors get more than glimpse time: Ashley Francis as the younger Valora and Greg Joseph as Guy, a friend of the family who's aiding in the search for her. Clearly there was no budget left for aging make up, as Harrelson looks no different in the present day scenes as he does at least a decade earlier. There's a pacing issue too, as things start to slow around the middle of the film and, once we realise the change, we feel them slowing even more. It doesn't help either that the ending is flubbed in a way that's so easy to fix but wasn't.

So there wasn't any money for anything flash; that means that the crew had to step up and do as much as they could with what they had and the results are a mixed bag. The writing is the most schizophrenic, because it might just be the best and the worst. The best is surely James Ray's dialogue, because it kept raising smiles on my face throughout the movie, from the tough catchphrases to his attempts to keep a 'second date' going when his captive won't eat. 'Don't make me do the choo choo!' he grins at her and I couldn't help but grin too. The worst is the lack of variety and, frankly, the lack of much of anything new happening throughout the film. It's set up quickly and well, but pretty much stays in the same place for eighty minutes, relying on Ray's charisma to keep us going. I do like what Alexandria does, unlike those IMDb reviewers, but there's maybe 45 minutes of material here that take 90 minutes to unfold. Maybe a bigger budget would have helped her, but I feel she could have shaken it up more without that help.

What she tries to do is let the characters build. There's no mystery here at all, as we discover that Ridley Thompson has kidnapped Valora Smith after setting up a meeting with her on a dating site. We don't see any of this as there wasn't the budget for it, but we do wonder why a young single lady would choose to drive out to a date's home in the Apache Junction countryside. He quickly explains that she's not the first but she is the first that he's actually sat down and talked with, perhaps because he offers each date the opportunity to run and the rest took it, only to be promptly shot down by his hunting rifle. Valora lost her parents at a young age, so was brought up by her grandpa who taught her never to run, to always stand and fight instead. She's the first to do so, which makes her special in this psychopath's eyes. He's clearly in love with her, so she uses that fact as leverage but she's rather inept at doing so. I wonder why she's not given more initiative, because it really hurts Valora as a sympathetic character.
If anything we find a little more sympathy for Ridley, which is strange to say because we're hardly in tune with his cause. It's just that he's having contagious fun and he does at least have a consistent and mostly believable flaw, which is that, while he can shoot people dead all day long, he can't actually touch a body without needing to cleanse himself afterwards. There's no explanation given for this at all, which is weird, but it is at least freaky enough to help his character. For a character we like, there's only one choice, and again it isn't Valora. It's her grandpa, who Michael Harrelson endows with a comforting voice that makes him feel like a sort of John Wayne next door. He broadcasts the feeling of being safe like radio waves, all the while teaching the young Valora how to actually be safe, which does make us wonder why she really needs those lessons and why she's forgotten so much of what he taught her by the time that they seem important again. That's all on her though, as he makes it seem like a gimme.

If Alexandria's writing is schizophrenic, offering much that's good but much that's bad too, it's mimicked a little by the rest of the crew, which includes a couple of major names in the local scene; Kevin R Phipps was the first assistant director and Webb Pickersgill shot and edited the film. There are points where the latter shines with both hats, such as a chase scene early on. Valora finds an axe, but her captor sees her and hunts her down. Pickersgill manages to keep on her for the most part, while never losing track of his movements; it's cleverly done. Unfortunately his introduction of shakycam for one scene later on acts as a counter, because it wasn't needed at all. On the editing front, he does reasonably well with the way he gradually weaves the flashbacks tighter to the present, but they're a necessary evil in this film and not a highlight. It would have been impossible for Alexandria to set up what she needed without them, but for the most part, they're just screen time without James Ray laughing at something inappropriate.

At the end of the day, he's the big winner here. For a psychopathic lunatic who has killed some 43 people before he captures Valora and takes care of a few more afterwards, Ray doesn't go overboard. Instead of playing up the lunacy, he plays up the normality, to the degree that he remains disturbingly normal even in the face of violence, intransigence or understandable hate. He's a strong character without much of a grounding who succeeds much more through Ray's portrayal than Alexandria's writing. Try to write down what he actually is and you'll end up with Ray's dialogue, grins and inappropriately cheerful disposition, little else. This is a few rungs up the ladder on every front from Star Quest: The Odyssey, Bonnell's other directorial effort of 2009, and it's a good deal more consistent than Running on Empty Dreams, on which he was an assistant director and both Ray and Benner were in the cast, the latter as a strong lead. It still isn't a great picture but at least it's fun, which Star Quest: The Odyssey emphatically wasn't.

1 comment:

Michael Harrelson said...

First,Glad you Liked my Character,Grandpa Smith,And I doubt you would get an argument from any of us that its flawed,But that Said,its one of the most Enjoyable films to make,I've Ever Worked on,And Truth be Told,Grand Pa Smith is probably my favorite Character,to have Portrayed,I still wear his Hat from Time to time,James Really Did do a Phenominal Job as Ridley,i rememember when we cast him ,at the auditions he was CLEARLY the right choice,no disrespect to the others who read for it it was just obvious he GETS it Kathleen in my eyes is always terrific,its more than Talent its more than Beauty,she has Charisima,you just cant take your eyes off of her when ever shes on screen.What I remember most was her expecting her Daughter at the time and doing her rough and tumble stunts,Happily Peanut Turned out Perfectly fine!Loved Working With Jon,Kev And Webb,And of Course My Dear Friend Greg Joseph,as Guy,Grand Pa's Friend We Are All Works in Progress,This One Could have been a lot worse,Ive been Lucky to work with all these good folks on more than one occasion,and Hope people Like us enough to see us in some of our newest films Happy Trails Michael