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On first impressions, Ewan McGregor appears to be channeling Russell Crowe in Son of a Gun, a punchy Australian action thriller from first-time feature director Julius Avery. Bearded and brooding in his early scenes, McGregor takes on a rare anti-hero role as a charismatic convict kingpin who becomes a manipulative mentor to a sensitive young fellow prisoner, played by the highly photogenic rising Aussie star Brenton Thwaites (The Giver, Maleficent). Avery, who won a Cannes prize for his 2008 short Jerrycan, based the story partly on his own early life in a boondocks town.
The past decade has been something of a golden age for superior Australian crime movies, from Little Fish to Animal Kingdom to The Square, whose multi-talented director Nash Edgerton actually plays a supporting role in Son of a Gun. But Avery’s debut falls well short of those recent peaks, relying instead on formulaic plot and character elements that pander to the action-driven mainstream. Coinciding with its domestic release, the movie makes its international debut at London Film Festival this week. A staggered theatrical roll-out across Europe begins in November, when commercial returns are likely to overshadow lukewarm critical buzz. A24 has snagged U.S. rights.
Thwaites plays JR, an emotionally wounded 19-year-old locked up in a brutal Western Australia jail for an unspecified minor offense. In time-honored prison-pic tradition, he falls foul of some ugly bad guys inside, but escapes a violent pounding thanks to cell-block daddy Brendan Lynch (McGregor). In return, JR is bound into a Faustian pact with his protector, which begins with him breaking Lynch out of jail in a hijacked helicopter.
The second act sees JR joining Lynch’s gang for a spectacular robbery on an open-pit gold mine, backed by a powerful Russian mafia boss (Jacek Koman). But the young rookie is soon making basic errors, antagonizing the godfather’s hot-headed foot soldiers while flirting with his sexy young courtesan, Tasha (Alicia Vikander), a sad-eyed refugee from the old country with the obligatory male-fantasy mix of super-hot body and kindly, chaste, adoring heart. Once the gold mine heist is over, all these strained loyalties implode in a bloodbath of betrayal and vengeance.
While Avery handles the kinetic action set-piece with impressive swagger for a first-timer, his self-penned screenplay is a major weak point. The dialogue is clogged with cliches, the characters are stock cyphers and the overfamiliar plot little more than a mixtape of scenes from countless superior prison-break and heist movies. A recurring chess metaphor first introduced in the jail sets the script’s general subtlety level, which falls somewhere between heavy-handed signposting and literally punching viewers in the face. Thom Kellar‘s propulsive score adds to the ear-bashing bombast.
Featuring explosive high-speed car chases and firefights with heavy assault weapons in which hardly anybody sustains even a flesh wound, Son of a Gun gives up any claims on gritty realism around the midway point. The casting of suave smoothie McGregor as a butch serial convict, barking his lines in a coarser version of his native Scottish accent, also stretches plausibility. Lynch’s jarring shift from principled father figure to bullying control-freak feels like a dramatic twist dictated more by clumsy third-act plotting than any pretense at psychological complexity.
Of course, assuming Son of a Gun‘s appeal to a less discerning action-thriller crowd, none of these flaws will hamper its commercial prospects. In its favor, technical credits are solid, and the pivotal heist sequence is well-handled. It also looks good, with an attractive cast playing their lethal games of human chess against the golden heat-haze backdrop of Australia’s sun-scorched Wild West. By the time it reaches its overlong final act, Avery’s noisy debut could almost be a minor Michael Mann or Tony Scott movie from the 1980s. To a certain target audience, that may even sound like a recommendation.
Production companies: Altitude Film Entertainment, Media House Capital, Southern Light Films
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Brenton Thwaites, Alicia Vikander, Jacek Koman, Matt Nable, Nash Edgerton
Director: Julius Avery
Screenwriters: Julius Avery, John Collee
Producer: Timothy White
Cinematographer: Nigel Bluck
Editor: Jack Hutchings
Music: Thom Kellar
Casting: Nikki Barrett
Not rated, 108 minutes
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