Crime dramas realised through Australian filmmaking eyes always seem that much more gritty and violent. That’s why first-time feature director Julius Avery’s contribution, Son of a Gun, is another exciting prospect with new debuting talent. Add an against-type input from our very own Brit export Ewan McGregor to the cast, and things get that much more interesting.
The best way to describe Son of a Gun is a film in three parts; prison drama, heist thriller and gangster flick. All three have their own qualities about them. All three suffer from some formulaic plotting, scripting and characterisation. But those who like their crime dish served Tony Scott hot will appreciate the action delivered in exhilarating spadefuls.
JR (devilishly handsome and photogenic Brenton Thwaites) is a 19-year-old thief sent to a Western Australian maximum-security prison for six months. As a good-looking rookie, JR is faced with two choices; be used and abused by a posse of hairy sex fiends or join forces with old-timer and prison daddy Brendan (McGregor) in exchange for helping break him and his cronies out of jail on JR’s release. Naturally, the youngster chooses the latter as he also sees this as a new career opportunity and Brendan as a ‘father figure’ and his meal ticket on the outside.
After the elaborate prison break is done, Brendan and co are hired by Russian gangster Sam (Jacek Koman) to do one last job – rob a gold mine. However, things turn ugly, and Sam double crosses his so-called ‘friend’ Brendan, leading to revenge being served on all participants involved in a game of chess.
There is an instant familiarity about a lot of the film, in terms of plot and execution, something that is inevitable with the genre. The prison scenes smack of any kind of Aussie TV drama in play, where the newbie is saved by the skin of his teeth, only to get into deeper water. What stands out is JR’s reference to chess moves in the state of play that first impresses Brendan (and us for a more cerebral connection to follow), then for the director to just flippantly revisit this at the end.
The heist is the action-packed part and well worth the ticket price alone, including automatic guns, car chases and ballsy moves. It shows Avery’s true talent and passion. The gangster bit is a little laboured and uneven, trying to fit in a relationship angle so that the film is not all testosterone-centric – though the girl in question, Tasha (curiously played by Testament of Youth star Alicia Vikander), lives up to the usual slinky, sexy Russian import, the standard flavour of Eastern European mobsters.
It’s another cliché the film is guilty of, perpetuated by comic Russian accents that Vikander dips in and out of. As the film proceeds, reality is completely suspended as more players are left unscathed by automatic gun fire while dreams of wealth are fulfilled, considering the first half snacked you between the eyes with its brutality in the dangerous game of navigating the villain hierarchy.
All cast members do an admirable job of making this a good, solid watch in its entirety. Thwaites as JR is super keen and sharp one minute then rebels like a sullen teenager trying to prove his worth the next. He has a naivety and laddish charm about him that is the only empathetic hook we have – most of the time he is neither liked nor disliked, but just good eye candy. That said the actor should be proud of his achievements in this.
It’s McGregor’s effort that is perplexing. All bearded up and rugged from the elements, he is a striking figure in any scene. The jury’s out as to whether he is ‘nasty enough’ for such a hard-hitting but still commercially aware Aussie film. Perhaps, as Brendan is almost portrayed as a ‘loyal good guy living on the wrong side of the tracks’, less menace was needed, as we do need to feel a sense of fatherly guidance from the crook towards his young protégé. McGregor also does an excellent job of breaking down his past nice guy acts by being unpredictable in nature in this, shocking at points in his violence. Still, does he have the right foreboding presence for an Aussie villain though?
Son Of A Gun is a stylish brute of a crime thriller, all cocksure and action-ready and desperate not to be taken at face value. It is a stretch, considering it falls into stereotypes, but its kinetic nature and fascinating performances from the likes of McGregor and rising stars Thwaites and Vikander make it one to watch on the latest Aussie crime drama list.