Gritty crime dramas are usually about thugs taking out other thugs, but the rare ones are actually about the battle of wits between two intelligent, albeit bent and criminal, people. There’s also a long history of mentor-mentee relationships in crime movies, and like Darth Vader confronting Ben Kenobi, the learner almost always becomes the master. Just because a basic premise has been done before, though, doesn’t mean it can’t be done well again given the right pieces, and one such movie that’s better than it has any right to be is the new Australian action-crime flick, Son of a Gun.
The feature debut of writer-director Julius Avery, Son of a Gun is a very self-assured film with believable performances and situations, some impressively frenetic action, and a central conceit that makes the whole thing work. It also drives home a point worth making time and again that there’s no honor among thieves, or at least not much, and going to prison anywhere seems like the worst thing imaginable. In the immortal words of Sammy Davis, Jr., “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.”
At the beginning of the film, a young lad named JR (Brenton Thwaites) is being put into prison for, we’re told, a six month sentence. Almost right away he begins eyeballing a familiar face, notorious Scottish bank robber Brendan (Ewan McGregor) who’s in prison for 20 years without parole. When JR gets mixed up with some unsavory prison folk, Brendan gives him a proposition: if Brendan can make the young man’s problem go away, he’ll have to help break the veteran criminal out of prison when the time comes. And, naturally, it does. After JR is released, he gets set up with a place overseen by mob boss Sam (Jacek Koman) and gets the weapons and things needed to bust Brendan and a couple other inmates out. Once this happens, Sam offers Brendan and company a massive heist opportunity that could net them seven figures.
JR’s new criminal life is complicated when he takes a fancy to one of Sam’s girls, an Eastern European beauty named Tasha (Alicia Vikander) who would do anything to be able to get away from the criminal life. But, if JR’s going to really get away scot free, he’s going to have to take chances most people wouldn’t. Like the game of chess that perpetuates the whole film, he’s going to win or lose, he’s not going to concede.
The first and biggest bright spot here is the performance by McGregor. He’s never really gotten the chance to play an all-out badass and usually even has to play the slightly effete one. Here, he actually gets to be as intense and formidable a presence as he was always capable of. His character is the one driving the action and we’re never sure whether to fully trust him, even if it seems like his actions are benefitting JR. Have to say, wasn’t wild about Thwaites. He certainly looks like he could be a semi-innocent pulled into a much more dangerous world, but I just never got much of a sense of what he wanted, aside from wanting Tasha. Vikander shows a lot of strength and vulnerability and impresses.
The direction here is solid. It’s shot like a Michael Mann movie without being so glossy it makes your eyes hurt. A lot of soft light, a lot of handheld-but-relatively-steady cinematography, and the scenes of action are exciting and tense. The thing I love about the Australian film industry right now is that they’re giving young or unproven filmmakers the opportunity and means to be awesome. Avery made six short films between 2002 and 2008 and got to make a really fun little crime movie that looks a lot bigger than it probably was. A state-run film program that actually cultivates new talent? WHAT?!
While not breaking any new ground narratively, Son of a Gun is a solid prison-heist-escape movie with a truly terrific turn from Ewan McGregor. Give it a shot, pun intended, if it comes your way.
4 out of 5 burritos