‘1%’: Film Review | TIFF 2017

1% Still 2 - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of TIFF
Born to be mild.

Australian director Stephen McCallum’s debut feature premiered in the Discovery section at the Toronto festival.

The phrase “outlaw motorcycle gang” has a remarkable ability to distill a gritty movie subgenre down to its essential features: tough-guy bikers, loud customized machines, rampant lawlessness and unquestioning group loyalty. Australian director Stephen McCallum’s casually violent feature 1% exhibits all of these requisite elements, but in proportions more characteristic of melodrama than crime drama. Still, the subject matter alone is almost enough to assure viewer interest, making continued festival play and even commercial release on some scale appear inevitable.

Despite the obvious opportunity, McCallum doesn’t set out to make an exploitation film in elaborating Matt Nable’s script, concentrating instead on the conflicted loyalties of biker brothers Paddo (Ryan Corr) and Skink (Josh McConville). While Copperheads Motorcycle Club president Knuck (Nable) has been doing a three-year penitentiary stretch, Paddo has been looking after the gang’s interests, bringing in new members and refining its business practices until the group is flush with cash. It’s all jeopardized however, when developmentally disabled Skink gets caught stealing a heroin stash from rival gang members the Devils, prompting their leader Sugar (Aaron Pederson) to put a price on his head by demanding the rights to launder the Copperheads’ ill-gotten earnings.

Recognizing an opportunity to improve the club’s financial fundamentals as well as safeguard Skink, Paddo seals the deal with Sugar. Paddo’s overtly ambitious girlfriend Katrina (Abbey Lee), a bartender working at the gang’s clubhouse, heartily approves of his machinations to gain more influence among the Copperheads. He’s brought up short however, once Knuck gets paroled and begins to reassert control over the club, forcing members back in line and emphatically nullifying Paddo’s business arrangement with the Devils. Frustrated Sugar gives Paddo a week to sort things out, suggesting a radical solution that Katrina eagerly endorses to extend Paddo’s sway over the Copperheads and protect Skink.

It’s hard to imagine that Australian motorcycle clubs routinely engage unimpeded in criminal enterprises, but there’s not a cop or a fed to be seen throughout the entire movie. Not that their suspicions would be aroused, however, since the Copperheads’ illegal activities remain remarkably vague, with an absence of the usual overt drug running, protection and prostitution rackets.

So how they’re generating all that cash that needs laundering isn’t quite so obvious, but Knuck is crystal clear that he’s going to be making the decisions about how to dispose of it, although Nable’s overly dense script spends too much time exploring the bikers’ clashing motivations rather than provoking escalation among rival factions. When the overdue paroxysm of violence finally erupts, it seems disproportionate compared with all of the strategic maneuvering that’s preceded it.

Former rugby player Nable (Riddick) has the hulking physique and intimidating stare of a career criminal, bringing a palpable menace to Knuck, who’s secretly struggling to resist his penchant for violently sodomizing young men, an inconvenient predilection he developed while in prison that he’s trying to conceal from his wife Hayley (Simone Kessell). Corr (Hacksaw Ridge) clearly has more to offer than what’s revealed by the ill-fated role of Paddo, but he's held back by the script’s inclination toward martyrization.

With the possible exception of Pederson’s craftily calculating Sugar, the women come off rather better than the men. Lee’s (The Neon Demon) Katrina makes for a ruthlessly vindictive challenger to Knuck’s authority and, by extension, to Hayley’s privileged position as well, forcing Kessell’s (San Andreas) character to develop a more imaginative response than might otherwise be required.

McCallum demonstrates that he’s more adept at staging actors than action; there’s nary a race, chase or crash to enliven all of the heavy-handed drama, and this is a motorcycle movie for pity’s sake.

Although the film’s title is intended to signify the elite among biker clubs, in a real-world face-off these guys probably would be turning tail in no time.

Production company: See Pictures
Cast: Ryan Corr, Abbey Lee, Simone Kessell, Josh McConville, Matt Nable, Aaron Pederson
Director: Stephen McCallum
Screenwriter: Matt Nable
Producers: Jamie Hilton, Michael Pontin
Executive producers: Josh Pomeranz, Viv Scanu, Stephen Boyle, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross
Director of photography: Shelley Farthing-Dawe
Production designer: Louise Brady
Editor: Veronika Jenet

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Discovery)

92 minutes