Sunday, 14 June 2015

VENDETTA - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Prison Pic Directors/Cast Rise Above Ho-Hum Script

Vendetta (2015)
Dir. Jen and Sylvia Soska
Scr. Justin Shady
Starring: Dean Cain, Paul "The Big Show" Wight, Michael Eklund, Kyra Zagorsky

Review By Greg Klymkiw

There's one thing screenwriter Justin Shady gets right in the WWE Studios production of the prison thriller Vendetta - he wastes no time in getting to the goods hardened genre geeks and prison picture aficionados appreciate.

When cop Mason Danvers (Dean Cain, star of TV's Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman) and his partner (Ben Hollingsworth) miraculously bust the seemingly un-bustable psycho serial criminal Victor Abbott (WWE's Paul “The Big Show” Wight), they don't count on chief witnesses "disappearing" and their infamous collar going free. What Danvers especially doesn't expect is Victor exacting revenge upon him by savagely beating his pregnant wife (Kyra Zagorsky) to death - with his bare hands. Victor almost seems happy to take the rap for this and go to prison. Danvers, hell-bent upon revenge (of course), murders Big Vic's brother and two other scumbag associates in cold blood. Like his bulky nemesis Victor, Danvers is happy to take the murder rap and go to prison so he can have a shot at killing the killer of his wife and unborn child.

All our hero has left is hatred. He has nothing to lose.

So, this takes all of 20 minutes. No time-wasting on trials or procedurals, but time enough for the dazzling director duo Jen and Sylvia Soska to deliver just enough footage twixt Danvers and his preggers wifey so we can see how much they love each other and how hard they've worked at having their first child and then, the sickening assault upon her, climaxing with Victor repeatedly bashing in the woman's belly, killing both her and the fetus and finally, Danvers delightfully dispatching the three aforementioned pieces of crap with plenty of gushing blood and brain-splattering.

And now, we get to prison. Yeeeeeee Haaaaaaaa!

In fairness to scenarist Shady, he hauls out all the prison picture tropes - the corrupt warden (Michael Eklund), the shifting allegiances on the yard, the requisite scenes against the backdrops of cafeteria, laundry room, solitary confinement, shower room and an eventual full-blown riot. This all continues to move the action briskly enough so the Soskas can continue to bowl us over with their considerable directorial prowess. Things also move narratively at a breakneck clip so we don't have a lot of time to mull over the stadium-sized holes in the plot (such as it is).

Niggling plot-holes aside (as they can ultimately be forgiven) where Shady's script lets discriminating genre fans and, frankly, the Soskas down, is the lack of any genuine thematic, political subtext. Given that the current American prison system is one of the most horrific abusers of basic human rights in the free world, especially since it's been hideously privatized so that prison administrators want their institutions to be ludicrously full and to not let anyone go free (all for profit, of course), one feels a huge missed opportunity here for the Soskas to inject their trademark social commentary and sensitivity to such areas as thematic and/or political resonance. Jesus, even See No Evil 2, their first WWE gun-for-hire gig was rife with strong elements of female empowerment and had a feminist subtext running through it that its screenplay offered plenty of room for.

This script is sadly missing such key elements. Genre fans are not idiots - a bit of flesh on the bones of exploitation is always a welcome treat. I feel badly dumping on the screenwriter here, though, since it's quite possible that the Lions Gate and WWE head honchos were the primary culprits in their own demands for a cookie-cutter approach to the writing. That seems a likely scenario to this fella.

It's too bad. Not only is the direction far better than the film (as written) deserves, but I was especially delighted with the performance of leading man Dean Cain (he's definitely got a nice, steely Eastwood-Bronson quality about him). The delectably smarmy Michael Eklund is never less than entertaining. He comes close to the grotesqueries of John Vernon in Chained Heat.

Why is it that Canucks like Eklund and Vernon make such good wardens in the movies? Probably because of Canada's history of politely corrupt bureaucracies. (Who will ever forget Canuck Hume Cronyn as the detestably sadistic head of prison security in 1947's Brute Force?) This all said, the screenplay doesn't quite allow Eklund to be anything more than a sleaze and he doesn't quite reach Vernon's level of genuine malevolence. (As for Cronyn, we won't even bother going there.)

The real revelation for me was Paul "The Big Show" Wight. Look, he's never going to be doing Shakespeare at Stratford (nor, I suspect, even Shakespeare in the Park in Elbow, Saskatchewan), BUT, as a villain, the man can act. He's a major creep in this picture and even brings a bit of sardonic humour to his line readings. One line the script gives him which he spits out with glee is when he brags about killing Danvers's pregnant wife and chortles that he at least got a "two for one" deal when he decimated her and the unborn child.

I'm happy to credit Shady with this line, but I must also admit, this is the kind of villainy I expect from the Soskas (a la the scum bucket surgery professor in American Mary). Here, though, it's not really allowed by the overall scenario to tie into any larger thematic scope. As for "The Big Show", I, for one, will be looking forward to a lot more of him on the silver screen. Hell, he even has it in him to be a heroic action figure in an Expendables-style picture.

Now, however, we get to the meat of the matter - the action and violence. The Soskas do not disappoint in this regard. Their direction goes far beyond just covering the thwacks, whacks, kicks, testicle-twisting and gore in a perfunctory manner, nor do they resort to the usual wham-bam with no sense of spatiality. I was delighted that they placed a fair degree of faith in actors who could clearly fight, some superb stunt choreography/coordination and a few occasional frissons like the makeshift "brass" knuckles Danvers creates and uses with sweet abandon. (Again, I'm happy to credit this delightful invention to screenwriter Shady.)

As a side note, it is incumbent of me to point out that the one prison movie cliche sadly missing from Vendetta are a few instances of forcible sodomy and blow jobs. Most disappointing. What gives? Even a dull, inexplicably beloved piece of crap like The Shawshank Redemption had a decent anal rape scene.

But, I digress.

Happily, the Soskas avoid the horrendous herky-jerky style of movement, dreadful compositions and endless closeups we're forced to endure by overrated hacks like Sam Mendes, J.J. Abrams and Christopher Nolan, but that they also keep the cuts spare (compared to most pictures these days). My only quibble, and this might partially relate to exigencies of the modest budget and (no-doubt) speedy shooting schedule, is that the action choreography is so good that I longed for wider shots and for many of the cuts to not be employed, thus allowing the action in many of those same shots to play out longer.

The Soskas demonstrate that they naturally understand that both the shots and cuts of action set pieces are dramatic beats and as such, many of them play out more than satisfactorily. That said, the next film they do that has this much action, if not more, one hopes that their producers will budget extra time for these sequences to allow for more shot variation and to allow choreography to play out in longer shots so that the only cuts which occur are those meant to drive the dramatic action forward.

Even though the budgets are ridiculously higher, a good rule of thumb for genuine filmmakers like the Soskas ("genuine" as in their prowess as film artists being hard-wired into their DNA), is to study the work of filmmakers like Sam Peckinpah and John Woo. Both of them utilize a lot of cuts (the final shootout in The Wild Bunch or Chow Yun Fat's first mass slaughter in the bar in The Killer are two of many examples), but what those directors do is to treat the action scenes like dance numbers in a musical (Woo) or a ballet (Peckinpah). Scorsese is a master of this too - the boxing matches in Raging Bull are rooted stylistically in the Powell-Pressburger ballet sequences in 1948's masterpiece of British Cinema, The Red Shoes.

Virtually every shot amongst the aforementioned masters is composed with the crosshairs aimed (a la George Miller in the Mad Max films) in the centre of the main dramatic action. This allows for more sumptuous compositions, but also allows for quicker cuts (if and when necessary) that treat everything as dramatic beats and hence, always maintaining spatiality (unless the director wants to intentionally mess with us, but that only works when said approaches are buried judiciously amidst more classical compositions).

This all said, the Soskas' instincts are right. There's just a few two many medium two shots that don't hold long enough before the cuts and a definite dearth of wider shots.

Finally, one very odd issue is the casting - not for the leads, but with the background extras as inmates. This corresponds to my earlier complaints about too many tropes and not much in the way of thematic layering. Given that the vast majority of American prison populations are African-or-Hispanic-American (a genuine tragedy and failing of America, a nation infused with deep-seeded racism and discrimination), this prison population (supposedly outside of Chicago in the state of Illinois, albeit with the hole that is Coquitlam, British Columbia standing in) seemed awfully "white".

While I'm tempted to continue the litany of laying blame upon the beleaguered screenwriter - characters, even background characters do, after all, need to be written in order to be cast and shot, however, there's a part of me which suspects that such failings fall within the purview of too many suits at Lions Gate and WWE wanting a specific property which ultimately lends itself to the eradication of elements which could allow for a film's pulp sensibilities to rise into a slightly more elevated plane.

God knows, classic American directors like Jules Dassin in Brute Force (maybe the best prison film ever made) or Don Siegel with Riot in Cell Block 11 (maybe the second best prison picture ever made) maintained B-movie squalor that crackled with excitement because the films had inner lives beyond the surface tropes. Is it unfair to compare Vendetta to classics? No. The Soskas are such damn special filmmakers, it would be an insult not to compare them to early works of masters like Dassin and Siegel.

The bottom line I think is that WWE and Lions Gate were the ones with their heads up their asses. Thank Christ the Soskas were at the helm to pull a superbly directed picture out of their respective asses in spite of the vision-bereft parameters of the screenplay and property itself.

Curiously, I watched Vendetta with my 14-year-old daughter who has long been a fan of the Soskas (yeah, I know, I know, but she is my daughter, after all). When the picture ended and cut to their credit, she yelled out, "God! That was such a good movie!" And you know what? In spite of wanting a fucking masterpiece, I felt exactly as she did at the end.

Like Daughter. Like Father.

Or something like that.


Vendetta is currently available on VOD, DVD and limited theatrical venues.