Film review: LIFE OF CRIME, from Built For Speed

In 1997 Quentin Tarantino capped a remarkable decade-defining trio of films (that included Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction) with Jackie Brown his superb adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch. Perfect casting and indelible performances, particularly from Pam Grier and Tarantino’s muse Samuel L. Jackson, made Jackie Brown an intoxicatingly funny, moving, tense and romantic film. Understandably, a prequel to Jackie Brown was going to be met with salivating anticipation. While clever and at times wryly amusing, that prequel Life Of Crime, never lives up to what were admittedly lofty expectations.

Set in 1978, Life Of Crime depicts the early days of the criminal association between Ordell Robie (Mos Def) wn and Louis Gara (Jonathan Hawkes) who in Jackie Brown were played by Samuel L. Jackson and Robert de Niro respectively.  In a typically slippery and convoluted Elmore Leonard plot-line, the film sees the two barely competent crims concocting an ill-fated plan to kidnap Mickey Dawson (Jennifer Anniston) the wife of rich sleazebag Frank Dawson (Tim Robbins).  Unforseen romantic attachments, a crazed neo-Nazi (Mark Boone Jr) and Frank’s calculating mistress Melanie (Isla Fisher, played by Bridget Fonda in Jackie Brown) soon cause the plan to go haywire.

There was potential here for a wonderful crime romp and character piece but it doesn’t quite click.  The main problem is that Life of Crime is just too low-key and restrained. The performances, the action, the sound design and the soft-focus look of the film are all muted. While it’s often a relief to have a break from the hyper-manic style of most contemporary films this one is just too laid back.  Consequently, it doesn’t have enough tension, excitement or narrative thrust. 

The cast do their best with the available material but they don’t burn their characters into the memory the way the cast of Jackie Brown did. The best performances come from the two women with Isla Fisher clever, seductive and funny as Melanie and Jennifer Anniston subtly amusing and sympathetic as kidnap victim Mickey.  Aniston always does something interesting when she escapes form the rom-com factory but it would have been better if she had meatier material to work with here.  Interestingly, Jonathan Hawkes plays the Louis character in noticeably different fashion to Robert de Niro.  In Jackie Brown Louis was a morose, taciturn slob who could turn violent unexpectedly. Here Hawkes plays Louis as a much more thoughtful and sensitive character who operates on an equal footing with Ordell. In fact, Hawkes portrayal of Louis recalls Robert Forster’s character in Jackie Brown, bounty hunter Max Cherry. Mark Boone Jr (who plays Bobby Munson in Sons of Anarchy) is amusingly weird but a little too unbelievable as the vile neo-Nazi.  Tim Robbins infuses the character of Frank with convincing sleaziness but his sporadic appearances don’t give the character enough room to breathe.  As Ordell Robie, Mos Def had a hell of a tough gig trying to walk in Samuel L Jackson’s footsteps and while he is perfectly adequate he just doesn’t have the wonderfully oily menace Jackson gave Ordell.

Despite its flaws the film benefits from a typically curly Elmore Leonard story-line that twists our expectations of the characters and introduces unexpected dilemmas and obstacles.  Some aspects of the storyline such as the romantic sub-plot are a little predictable, though, which further diminishes any tension in the film. Ultimately, Life of Crime is watchable lightweight diversion from headache-inducing special effects driven action films but it’s an underwhelming experience.

Nick’s rating: ***

Genre: Crime/ drama/ comedy.

Classification: MA.

Director(s): Daniel Schechter.

Release date: 25th Sept 2014

Running time: 98 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. 

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