Detonator: Film Review

Imitation does not induce innovation. 

Lawrence Michael Levine, Sophia Takal and Joe Swanberg co-star in Keir Politz and Damon Maulucci’s debut feature.

Employing a readily identifiable cast and directorial style, Detonator feints toward a particularly East Coast style of improvisational low-budget filmmaking that makes it more recognizable for its familiarity than for any particular innovations. A necessarily limited theatrical release may do more to clue hipsters into the film’s availability on download and VOD, however, than it will to drive box-office revenues.

Following a brief stint as frontman for local band Detonator back in Philadelphia’s early-2000s punk-rock heyday, Sully (Lawrence Michael Levine) has since settled down with his passive-aggressive girlfriend Karen (Dawn L. Hall) and their young son, taken a sales rep job for a music-gear company and gotten his tattoos removed. Although still struggling to pay the bills, he’s settled unevenly into domesticity and pretty much left his old rocker days behind when ex-bandmate and former junkie Mick (Benjamin Ellis Fine) resurfaces with a plan to repay the band’s savings that he stole when he disappeared several years previous.

The type of toxic manipulator that prompts most well-adjusted people to refuse his advances, Mick’s vague come-ons somehow prove irresistible to Sully, who’s drawn back into Mick’s cycle of repetitive needling and wheedling. Mick’s plan to recover the master tape from recording sessions that were originally funded by vengeful nightclub owner Dutch (Robert Longstreet) quickly derails when the impresario refuses to turn over the tape until he’s paid what he’s owed, frustrating Mick’s plan to use the group’s original music to persuade aloof attorney Sid (Joe Swanberg) to file a copyright infringement lawsuit against a former bandmate.

Undeterred by this minor inconvenience, Mick’s impulsive response appears to put Sully at risk of almost certain arrest, if Dutch doesn’t beat him to a pulp first. Most of the action takes place over one long night as Sully chauffeurs Mick around in the family minivan, encountering one dead-end after another as Mick plays out his final options before turning himself in early the next morning on a DUI charge that he’s been unsuccessfully dodging. The only upside for Sully seems to be a brief flirtation with the cashier (Sophia Takal) at Dutch’s club, but inevitably he’s again betrayed by Mick’s quickly fraying machinations, facing an unenviable choice between old loyalties and his life of newfound semi-stability.

Debuting directors Damon Maulucci and Keir Politz have a better sense of storycraft than the filmmaking on display, which is often beset by unstable handheld camerawork, sloppy framing and a preponderance of on-location low-light nighttime scenes that excessively grubby up the visual aesthetic. While this might be inferred as a nod to the film’s avowed punk-rock sensibilities, there are precious few genuine signifiers that would set the narrative in that specific context.

The filmmakers’ scripting of the main characters as distraught middle-aged white men facing various degrees of desperation is somewhat more persuasive (particularly in a rather savage turn by Longstreet), but undercut by the pathetically low stakes involved (and the fact that the pistol shoved into the waistband of Mick’s trousers never plays a decisive role). Clearly the detonator among the characters, Fine in his feature-film debut enthusiastically grasps the scope of Mick’s unfocused mania, although the funny man-straight man routine never quite clicks with Levine, whose lethargic character comes off as almost unrelentingly one-note.

A regrettably unremarkable score by Joe Jack Talcum, guitarist for Philly’s punk-pop band The Dead Milkmen, gets enlivened somewhat by contributions from genre torchbearers New Bomb Turks and local bands Dead People Screaming and Party Photographers.

Opens: April 11 (Breaking Glass Pictures)

Production: Mortar Films

Cast: Lawrence Michael Levine, Benjamin Ellis Fine, Sophia Takal, Robert Longstreet, Joe Swanberg, Dawn L. Hall

Directors-writers: Damon Maulucci, Keir Politz

Producers: Damon Maulucci, Keir Politz, David Jacovini, Geoffrey Quan

Executive producer: David Jacovini
Director of photography: Michael Cano
Production designer: Irit Reinheimer 
Costume designer: Brenda Moreno
Music: Joe Jack Talcum

Editor: Matthew L. Weiss

Not rated, 94 minutes

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