The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Long Good Friday

My past experience with British actor Bob Hoskins is a limited one.  I've never seen but know he's in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and then I liked him in a supporting part in Zulu Dawn which I reviewed earlier this year. So with a well-known and respected actor such as Hoskins, is it fair to say I think I've seen his best role of which there are many to choose from?  IMDB lists 113 titles to his name, and I've seen a grand total of two now.  Well, critics loved one performance in particular, and so did I, 1980's The Long Good Friday.

I've got to give the Brits credit when it comes to crime thrillers.  Plain and simple, they don't pull any punches in delivering gritty, realistic and often very stylish movies that translate well to audiences (often turning the movies into cult classics after their releases).  And no, these aren't the ultra-stylish movies of the last 10 or 15 years that come to mind like Guy Ritchie-directed crime capers or even one of my new favorite movies, Layer Cake.  These are movies in the dark, dank streets of England no matter how high up the food chain these characters are.  They work in the back alleys in a world filled with violence and betrayal.  Now let's allow Mr. Hoskins to get to work.

Having spent 10 years assembling a crime empire in London, Harold Shand (Hoskins) has finally put it all together, a plan that will put him at the top of the criminal underworld not only in England but possibly Europe too.  But right as he is about to close a huge deal with the American Mafia, things go haywire.  An attempted hit on his mother goes wrong, an old friend and right-hand man is stabbed to death, and another bomb in his casino somehow doesn't go off before being found.  Is someone gunning for Harold? Does someone resent the power he's acquired? Could this be the start of a gang war after years of peace? Or in a worse case scenario, is one of his own turning on him? With a deadline working against him, Harold goes on the warpath to figure out who or what is gunning for him.

Style-wise, this John Mackenzie-directed crime thriller reminded me in a lot of ways of the original Get Carter starring Michael Caine. It is dark, gritty and cynical with some expert touches of black humor thrown in for good measure.  We see the London underworld for what it is, seedy, violent and full of betrayal, not some romantic, idealized view of how cool and suave you might often think of.  Released in the U.S. in 1980, 'Friday' hit theaters in England in 1979 so on top of that low-down, gritty style, we also get a picture of that over the top, awful 1970s sense of style from the wardrobe to the sets.  It all adds up for the better though, like a time capsule dropping you in on the groovy 1970s.

While Hoskins had been visible on TV and in movies for almost nine years before this movie, his Harold Shand was his breakout role, the one that put him in the public eye.  It's a remarkable performance, full of rage and intensity coupled with genuine confusion and frustration at not knowing what's going on.  On appearances alone, Hoskins doesn't look like a star.  He's short, stocky and balding, but this is a man just boiling over with intensity that could explode at any moment.  One second, he's calm and controlled, and the next he's lashing out.  His Harold is incredibly intelligent and brave (with some hypocrisy too) but also stubborn and full of pride.  It's a bad combination for a man in power trying to hold his teetering empire together.  The whole performance is memorable, but Hoskins saves his best for last including the haunting final shot of the movie that you won't soon forget, all of it aided by Francis Monkman's quirky yet appropriate score. Listen HERE for the main theme.

What worked so well for me with this mystery within the crime thriller is that the twist is so simple in its execution and reveal.  I won't spoil it here, but the reason behind it all is out of Harold's control. That's what makes it work so well.  As to who is behind it, the supporting cast keeps you guessing.  Helen Mirren plays Victoria, Harold's girlfriend and assistant, Derek Thompson and P.H. Moriarty are Jeff and Razors, two of Harold's enforcers, Bryan Marshall is Harris, a lawyer with mob connections, Eddie Constantine and Stephen Davies are Charlie and Tony, Harold's American "business connections," and Dave King is Parky, Harold's source on the police force. Also look out for a 26-year old Pierce Brosnan in his film debut as a hired gun. 

There's nothing particularly new or different about this British crime thriller overall.  From top to bottom though, it is well-made and professional, ranging from the cool sets and filming locations to a winding story that always keeps you guessing to a cast that uniformly delivers great performances, especially Hoskins in his star-making role.  If you're curious about the movie and can't find a copy, check it out on Youtube starting with Part 1 of 11.

The Long Good Friday <---trailer (1980): ***/****  

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