Friday, June 12, 2015

Soskas Behind Bars: VENDETTA

Being, as you know, one of their foremost fans, I stayed up late last night to catch VENDETTA, the new film by AMERICAN MARY's Jen & Sylvia Soska, as soon as it premiered on VOD (Hulu Plus, in my case). It is also opening today at a select number of theaters in cities around the country - Dallas, Chicago, Atlanta, Phoenix, Detroit, Tampa, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and New York.

I don't want to deprive the film of its surprises, so I'll just say that it's the raw story of a cop (Dean Cain) who commits a crime to get incarcerated, the better to avenge a more personal crime behind bars at Stonewall, an Illinois prison. It's not a horror movie and it's void of most fantasy aspects, which makes it not exactly my kind of movie - and, to their credit, the Soskas don't turn it into their kind of movie, either. Being a WWE production and co-starring Paul "The Big Show" Wight (7' tall and tipping the scales at 500 pounds), VENDETTA could have easily become a vehicle for a kind of outsized, cartoonish world of masculine fantasy - the male side of the coin to Russ Meyer's "Bosomania" pictures, if you will - but I don't think the propellents of this particular story (which include the murder of a pregnant woman) allowed the Soskas to take the material less than seriously.

The Soskas have been staking territory for themselves since the beginning as New Horror's foremost feminist filmmakers, but VENDETTA is pretty much wall-to-wall testosterone. There is nothing much here to outwardly signify that the Soskas were part of the project's DNA, apart from the presence of some key members of their most recent creative trust (DP Mahlon Todd Williams, production designer Troy Hansen, musicians the Newton Brothers) and some stylishly directed, wickedly violent fight and action sequences. While these demonstrate that the Soskas have grown considerably since their filming of similar scenes in 2009's maxed-out credit card debut DEAD HOOKER IN A TRUNK, it is otherwise as if they set themselves the challenge of making a picture while leaving their egos at the gate, or deliberately jumping into a project outside their comfort zone to discover how resourceful they could be in unfamiliar, Man's World terrain. In some ways, VENDETTA can be seen as a strategic calling card to Hollywood and the film business at large, as it proves beyond a shadow of doubt that the Soskas are not just quirky auteurs but stable workers for hire, able to color inside the lines when the work demands it - which would be great, if the the material was more original and interesting than what the Soskas themselves usually bring to a picture. This workman-like script, credited to newcomer Justin Shady (the IMDb also mentions Jacob Sullivan as a script contributor), isn't really worthy of them.

For the record, I had the same complaint when their fellow Canadian director, David Cronenberg, set his original screenwriting aside after VIDEODROME to test the more commercial waters of adaptation, as he did with 1983's THE DEAD ZONE. Some people love THE DEAD ZONE, but for me it's a film that any number of directors could have made, and one that some directors with far less talent than Cronenberg might have made even better. A more pertinent point of reference in this case might be Ken Russell's 1998 Showtime feature DOGBOYS, a prison drama starring none other than... Dean Cain. Russell, one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century, took the assignment to have work, to prove himself competent and employable, and it's a well-made action film of a not terribly ambitious kind. Having Russell's name on it may unfairly raise one's expectations of it. While VENDETTA is no DEAD ZONE (and doesn't aspire to be), it's a more satisfying Dean Cain vehicle than DOGBOYS, which, working within these lines, is a commendable thing.

So what are this movie's strengths? The big plus, right up front, is Cain himself - he gives a dark, hard-edged and committed performance as vengeful cop Mason Danvers (curiously, a name that's half AMERICAN MARY's Mary Mason, and half Fred Danvers, the role Cain plays in the SUPERGIRL pilot) so that he more than matches his towering WWE superstar opponent The Big Show in terms of mean. Also, while the film glories in bloodshed, it refuses throughout to beautify or fetishize violence. Williams' cinematography is both sleek and gritty, the music gives the film attitude and glide, and the stunt choreography by Dan Rizzuto (WATCHMEN, MAN OF STEEL, TOMORROWLAND) is tense and exceptional. It's also well worth staying in your seat for the end credits - not because there's a surprise at the end, but because the Soskas have punctuated the scrolled names with little bits of business that serve as little after-mints of style.

The aspect of the film that was most problematical for me was Michael Eklund's performance as Snyder, the prison warden. Sporting the worst, most distracting haircut I've ever seen in a movie, Eklund (a very good actor previously seen in SEE NO EVIL 2, and particularly effective in Xavier Gens' THE DIVIDE and BATES MOTEL) plays the warden like a skeezier Vincent Price with a suit and tie and an unfinished buzzcut. It's an impossibly eccentric performance, so people in search of a hoot may cotton to it; he plays the warden like the absolute last person anyone would put in charge of running a state prison, making the corruption of his office obvious from the get-go, while the script itself leaks such information in dribbles. I recognize that such obviousness would serve a point in the context of hipster satire, or the sort of male Meyeresque fantasy to which I alluded earlier, but in all other departments, this film puts itself forward as serious drama so I kept wishing the Soskas had reined him in.

If VENDETTA is fairly generic entertainment of its kind, we must remember that what is generic is the very essence of genre; it's where the word comes from. But the beauty of genre is commonplace material kissed by the presence of the extraordinary - whereas here I feel the Soskas were trying a little too earnestly to not intrude on the material, which is akin to a pair of Queens trying not to intrude on a winning hand. If the Soskas played this opportunity to show that they can direct a more mainstream kind of film as well as anyone, VENDETTA can be counted a modest success. Now that it has given them a better idea of their talent and its perimeters, here's hoping they hurry back to making those special films that only they can make.