I know what you're thinking, but the Cap'n is not yet in the business of reviewing porn or porn-related films. That certainly sounds like something the Cranpire might do, but it's not really up my alley. No, I'm reviewing 44 Inch Chest in the hopes of turning some of you on to a well executed, well acted, well written, if not wholly successful, nevertheless entertaining revenge film from the UK.
The plot is simple, yet it opens up room for the cast (and director) to really explore themes of camaraderie, infidelity, maturity, and vengeance. The 44 Inch Chest referred to in the title is where Loverboy (Melvil Poupand) is being kept, the result of his breaking up the marriage of Colin (Ray Winstone) and Liz Diamond (Joanne Whalley). Colin's friends Archie (Tom Wilkinson), Mal (Stephen Dillane), Old Man Peanut (John Hurt), and Meredith (Ian McShane) help arrange to kidnap Loverboy for the expressed purpose of letting Colin kill him. The problem is that Colin's having a hard time doing just that, so on night two they find themselves trying to get him out of a stupor and to do what they came to this abandoned building for.
If that doesn't have you interested already, I'll give you three good reasons to see this out:
1. The script, by Louis Mellis and David Scinto (Sexy Beast), could almost be a stage play. Aside from a handful of transitional scenes, most 0f 44 Inch Chest takes place inside the room where Loverboy is being kept or in the adjoining hallway. The primary action takes place in conversation between the five men, punctuated with a few flashbacks, asides, and an initially wonky but appropriate series of dream sequences. I would be very interested to see 44 Inch Chest performed live, as their screenplay is dialogue heavy and could easily be transferred to the theatre.
2. Accordingly, the direction by first time feature filmmaker Malcolm Venville conveys the limited space in a way that feels fresh, if at times of another era. The User Review on IMDB refers to the film as "strangely anachronistic", which I don't know if that's quite fair. Venville doesn't rely on a lot of camera trickery or quick cuts, instead preferring long takes with fluid camera moves focusing on the actors and acquainting the audience with location. Even in a tight shot of Mal, Meredith, Archie, and Peanut in a hallway, there's a sense of space and motion, despite the framing. The aforementioned dream sequences are easy to point out (which may be part of the reason I struggled with their inclusion), although it's due in part to the fact that the camera switches to a subjective view of the room (almost totally from Colin's perspective), which interrupts the careful mise-en-scene Venville's spent to much of the film developing. It's not that I don't get why the sequences are there (and I'm leaving out specifics so as not to spoil anything), but initially it seems to betray the story to that point, even if by the end they're wholly appropriate to Colin's arc.
3. The cast is fantastic, and I'd be hard pressed to find a better combination of British actors in one movie. Every character is distinct and brings something different to the struggle Colin has in killing Loverboy. Tom Wilkinson's Archie is by far the most level-headed of the group; he's a nice middle-aged man who lives with his mother and is trying to help Colin get through this betrayal, and takes some enjoyment out of re-living "the good old days" with the boys. Stephen Dillane (John Adams, Hamlet)'s Mal seems to be along for the ride, a low-end criminal that wants to see Colin have his revenge, and who looks up to Old Man Peanut. John Hurt is a force to be reckoned with as Peanut, a bitter old-school hood that lives "by the code" and who uses profanity like punctuation. He's off-set by the dapper, elegant Meredith, Ian McShane's middle-aged homosexual playboy with no sense of attachment or loyalty beyond this circle.
Their interaction alone would be worth the price of admission, but in tiny roles (comparatively speaking), Joanne Whalley (Willow) and Melvil Poupand (A Christmas Tale) leave a big impression. Liz Diamond disappears for much of the movie, but as her story is slowly explained in the flashbacks (which bridge the opening scene to the dream sequences), it's clearer why Ray Winstone is so wrecked by her infidelity. Loverboy, without uttering a word, conveys the range of emotions from remorse to terror, and finally, to pity in brief glimpses. He is both the perfect compliment and foil to Colin.
Speaking of which, I haven't really delved into Ray Winstone's Colin, which is probably the sticking point for a lot of reviews. He spends most of the film in various catatonic states, or struggling to parse reality from fantasy, and it does at times make 44 Inch Chest slow down a bit, particularly when juxtaposed with a fantastic sequence in the hallway involving Peanut recounting the story Samson and Delilah (complete with footage of DeMille's 1949 version starring Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr) to the boys. There's a lot of the middle of the film where it seems Colin can't do anything, and while Winstone is fascinating to watch and packs subtlety into his character, there's not much development of the "hero" until the last fifteen minutes or so.
I suppose that I didn't mind in part because everyone is so good, and the dialogue and direction are refreshingly different from the normal, Guy Ritchie-esque British Crime Films*. I enjoyed 44 Inch Chest, though there may be flaws in the presentation; the film is compelling enough to get you over the hiccups and keep viewers engaged until the end. It would make an interesting double feature with the Michael Caine-starring Harry Brown, perhaps even more so than Gran Torino.
* Not to slag on Ritchie, who like Quentin Tarantino has been ripped off enough times be less talented filmmakers that the style is not passe.