by NIR SHALEV
Willie Parker (Terence Stamp) is a British gangster who honestly believes that squealing on his colleagues and boss is the right thing to do. We see him in the courtroom acting high and mighty and his ex-friends begin to sing We’ll Meet Again; they sing the lines with glee: “don’t know when, don’t know where.” We then see him living in Spain ten years later. Although a Spanish cop follows him around for protection, Willie is too relaxed. In fact, he’s so relaxed that he speeds ahead on his bicycle and runs right into an ambush. He is kidnapped and thrown into a car. When the sack is lifted from his head he sees two British hit men pointing guns at him.
Braddock (John Hurt) is channeling Jean-Paul Belmondo from Godard’s Breathless; with a white suit, dark square shades, and a cigarette always sticking out of his mouth. Myron (Tim Roth) is very blonde and looks like a crew-cut army brat, but he acts like a punk.
Myron drives the car and the first thing Willie does is play a guessing game with where they’re all headed. Braddock informs him that they’re going to Paris to see the boss and to execute him there, and for some strange reason Willie seems to be fine with the idea; he’s almost euphoric. He believes that the end comes for everyone whether we like it or not and that it could be soon or much later. We, the audience begin to realize that this is a film about the psychology behind facing death and accepting one’s fate. Willie will always believe that what he had done was the right thing and he accepts his chosen destiny. Braddock wonders for how long.
While detouring by a safe-house they meet an old friend and his young Spanish lady Maggie (Laura Del Sol). Why they need her and take her on the road with them is immaterial. Why Braddock points a gun to her head twice within the course of a couple of days and doesn’t fire is the complexity that is Braddock. He is always calm and composed and puffing away on those cigarettes. He fights with Maggie on a regular basis and ends each confrontation with his pistol, but no shots are ever fired. Myron also takes a liking to her, but he’s “green” and wants to make a great impression on Braddock so he stays away from her.
What we have here is a road trip movie about an ex-gangster, two hit men and the woman that gets in the way. Willie is always playing head games with Myron, claiming that he might want to keep an eye on Braddock. That maybe because Braddock’s offing every bystander that sees his face he might turn the pistol on him, too. Myron becomes suspicious of both men while Maggie has no friends in the pack at all. They’re a strange bunch and the film is filled with such tension that we never know what will happen next. Will someone shoot someone else? And who will die, if anyone at all? We understand the characters, but their motives change constantly and we’re left in the dark hoping against the worst.
The soundtrack adds to the tension of the film through the beauty of a Spanish guitar. We hear the guitar throughout the entire film and sometimes flamenco. We see the vast emptiness of deserts and small desert towns, but we also visit a vast green forest like in fantasy films. With that the director provides the audience with a few moments to relax and remember that this is not an action film, but a thinking-man’s psychological tale of destiny that is in the hands of others. While we ponder the truth behind the intentions of the hit-men the tension continues to rise and sporadic bouts of violence occur throughout the film, Braddock relieving his tension upon anyone that sees his face.
The cast is strong in presence and performance. Terence Stamp is great as a “supergrass” (squealer) who loosens up before his arrival in Hades and John Hurt is always awesome when looking serious and speaking no words. Tim Roth is very young here, but is excellent nevertheless and predetermined echoes of Reservoir Dogs are present.
Before Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and The Grifters (1990), director Stephen Frears brought us a gangster film that took place in Spain and mostly in the desert. The harsh emptiness filled us with feelings for all four characters, be they good or bad, and made us nervous during every passing moment that went by without words. This is a film filled with visual artistry; the compositions and blocking of the characters remind us of Akira Kurosawa films and their geometry forms perfect squares and triangles within each shot. Stephen Frears showcases his talent by tackling different genres throughout his career and while conquering them, he makes them his own.