Review: Swelter


A bunch of “Reservoir Dogs” wannabe suited robbers with Rat Pack masks that somehow all look like the same guy (and no one in the Rat Pack) have just gotten out of prison for a Vegas heist gone wrong. Headed by Grant Bowler, the gang (which includes Jean-Claude Van Damme, Daniele Favilli, and Josh Henderson) now make their way to a sleepy small town called Baker for reasons gradually revealed. Baker is overseen by Sheriff Bishop (Lennie James), who likes to run a very tight ship. That is to say, he doesn’t allow anyone to have any fun ever, especially his teenage (step?) daughter (Aussie actress Freya Tingley), who pretty much hates his guts. The robbers seem to recognise Sheriff Bishop, but not vice versa. Just what is their connection, why doesn’t the sheriff remember, and just what in the hell are their intentions? Catalina Sandino Moreno plays Sheriff Bishop’s squeeze, whilst Alfred Molina plays the town doctor, Arie Verveen plays the town preacher, and Tracey Walter is an elderly resident of Baker.

 

Awkward, slow, disappointing 2014 attempt at a mixture of western (think “High Plains Drifter” or “Welcome to Hard Times”) and “Reservoir Dogs” (with more than a touch of “A History of Violence”) from writer-director Keith Parmer (who previously debuted with “Tic”, starring Lennie James and Daniele Favilli) has an interesting cast on paper but they’re not very well-used for the most part. Lennie James is pretty good in the lead and his character is an interesting one. He’s the thing that keeps you watching, especially once you realise that Jean-Claude Van Damme is really only here to capitalise on his world-weary face. The Muscles From Brussels doesn’t get nearly enough screen time to flex his improved acting muscles this time out. His character seems like it’ll play some great import on the film, but it never materialises. Was something left on the cutting room floor there? Alfred Molina is similarly wasted, which is a shame because he actually doesn’t half-arse his performance here and the film could’ve used a lot more of him and Van Damme.

 

Outside of Van Damme, the bad guys here aren’t especially interesting, especially as led by Aussie TV actor/presenter Grant Bowler. Bowler gives one of his better non-Aussie performances, but offers up zero menace. He’s a bit bland and unthreatening, as are his other henchmen/comrades played by Josh Henderson and Daniele Favilli. Look for veteran character actor Tracey Walter looking ancient and toothless as a guy named Old Henry.

 

The film reminds me a tad of “Outside Ozona” in that it’s about a bad incident heading its way to a small, sleepy town fully unawares of what is about to hit. However, once Bowler and crew arrive it’s a pretty slow, uninvolving affair despite James’ best efforts (“Outside Ozona” was also pretty disappointing, actually). It’s also far more confusing than it needs to be in regards to past events. You eventually get the hang of it, but it’s too late to care by then, really. While it fails on the western front as it does the crime/gangster front, there are pockets of pretty interesting, brooding drama where the film does wake up a bit and James is mostly to thank for that. As I said, his character is quite interesting. He’s an almost arrogantly Dudley Do-Right sheriff who appears to have had a shady past. For a great length of the film you get the impression that he’s a man desperately seeking redemption but also seemingly waiting for his past troubles to come back into his life. It’s quite intriguing to see play out. But then- BAM! He actually doesn’t remember his past at all! It’s a bit confusingly done, but certainly not uninteresting dramatic stuff that James plays very well. That said, the cinematography by Michael Mayers (A TV vet who was also DOP on the ‘classic’ Troma film “The Class of Nuke ‘Em High”) is highly uneven, looking nice at times, and offering up typically dim DV visuals the rest of the film which does make it harder to enjoy the film.

 

Awkward, slow and a bit confusing, this film isn’t anywhere near as good as you want it to be. Alfred Molina and to an extent Jean-Claude Van Damme have turned up with their working boots on, but Lennie James is the only one here who is ultimately well-served. This one’s watchable, but you’ll come away disappointed in the end. It’s not one of Van Damme’s better recent films, but it’s hardly the man’s fault.

 

Rating: C+

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