Monday, May 26, 2008

Living & Dying

Reservoir Dogs has a lot to answer for. At the top of the list, chic crime, casual death and morose moral temper look penetratingly through the glaze of the celluloid. The film brought back a violent realism, spun in fibres of cool. But it earned its reputation by creating a knowing, stylised aesthetic, visually compelling and coupled with the sharpest of razor-edge dialogue. What the imitators do is take the blood ballet and firearm posturing of Tarantino’s firstborn and forget to include the elements by which it earned its kudos.

Living & Dying is no different from these copyists: it rapes and pillages from a clear set of antecedents, deriding influences left and right, almost in a snivelling attempt to mire by association. Thursday did it well, weathering the malady of QT to create a decent, enjoyable film, parading Tom Jane around the screen in a patchwork of comic fashions. It held on to the black humour and playfulness vital for the whole to work. Whereas Living & Dying lingers at the opposite end of the spectrum, a place for scorn to be expelled and invective spat forth.

Edward Furlong and some others rob a bank. While escaping they are forced to take refuge in a small café. Hostages are taken as the scared troupe expect the cavalry to arrive any time soon and of course little time is wasted by the cops in surrounding the building. But things get worse when two of the hostages turn out to be vicious ne’er-do-wells, shooting one of the bank-robbers and taking over the situation, using Furlong as a dummy to hide their criminality from the eyes and ears of the cops. Outside, Arnold Vosloo endeavours to lead the negotiations while combating a surly superior and the self-important owner of the bank.

Tensions remain non-existent and heartstrings slack as the film fails to deliver any excitement. Clichés beat down upon every scene, taking potential and nullifying it. Cinematic hostage situations of yore are presented onscreen saturated of any and all merits – it’s the negative images of remembered quality. No Dog Day Afternoon worth, no Airheads hilarity, not even any Mad City Travolta. Drab are the images fed us by writer-director John Keeyes. Lacklustre scenes include Furlong secretly calling Vosloo behind the backs of the villainous twosome, a co-opted news reporter entering the building to film live footage confirming the hostages’ well-being, and a shoddy western showdown for a finale. Scenes are poorly shot and constructed, with whatever hint of energy therein evaporating quickly.

Whilst there are a host of potentially awesome bad movie moments, they too tend to evaporate quickly. The shoot-out scenes are particularly funny as one character shoots at another a few feet away only to hit nothing but a potted plant. When the trio enter the café for the first time, they are surrounded by four or five cops all shooting blindly at them, while they shoot blindly back. It’s fairly amusing, looking like a low-budget student film that’s intent on having exciting action sequences. Even the actors look awkward seizing the firearms in their hands – they should just have cast infants and played it out like a gory episode of Rugrats.

Another key bad movie moment occurs when Michael Madsen appears. Not only does he lurch around the décor as an irascible government agent, sexist and gung-ho, but he also wears a cowboy hat. His moments are good, coloured in finely-tuned swathes of stupidity. Had he been granted more screen-time I’d be inclined to whisper sweet songs of tribute to the film. But alas it wasn’t meant to be.

The one good thing about Living & Dying – yes, there is one – is that it facilitates the return of Trent Haaga to our screens. You may remember Trent from the Troma archive, from the fine cinematic artefacts whittled by Lloyd Kaufman and associates. Cast your mind back to Citizen Toxie: wasn’t Haaga’s turn as the leader of the Diaper Mafia one of its highlights? Or Terror Firmer: was this not Haaga’s finest acting hour?

Here he plays one of the two evil-doers, the passive, slightly-emasculated one. Moments to be imprinted on the retinas include his numerous guffaws spawned by the killing of hostages and his vitriolic outbursts against the elderly owner of the café. But the spotlight truly floats his direction when he gets a chance to rape a busty news reporter who comes in. It’s like the guitar solo of the film, one of those overlong numbers executed in the key of bad taste. Ah, but it’s Haaga; others we wouldn’t excuse, but his wispy beard and camp, rubber acting get a free pass.

Take from this film nothing of worth, no humour, nor thrills. Tears can be shed elsewhere, Living & Dying leaves the eyes parched, stealing the minutes that could have been spent crying over some other nugget of shite cinema, one embroidered with the finest jewels of cheeseball nonsense this side of Van Damme’s Van Cock.


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