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Although it depicts a Scottish youth subculture and was underwritten by the Glasgow Film Fund, whose first project was Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave, Small Faces is no Trainspotting. Indeed, some detractors of Boyle’s smack fantasia have proposed Small Faces as the anti-Trainspotting, a gray, naturalistic antidote to the latter’s nihilistic exuberance. Director Gillies MacKinnon’s not-exactly-autobiographical film (co-written with his brother, Billy) has some flashy moments, but it remains carefully grounded in the grim details of working-class adolescence in late-’60s Glasgow.
The events of the film are fictional, but the director has said that talented teenage artist Alan MacLean (Joseph McFadden) is based on his adolescent self, while younger brother Lex (Iain Robertson) is derived from Billy, who co-produced the film. Though a fledgling artist himself, Lex is also swayed by their older brother, Bobby (J.S. Duffy), a youth-gang brute who seems stunted both intellectually and emotionally. Bobby, explains MacKinnon, “is an invention, or perhaps the older brother represents the world around us.”
The world around Alan and Lex is not especially interested in the Italian Renaissance artists whose paintings their widowed and quietly unhappy mother, Lorna (Claire Higgins), quizzes her sons about. Lex is nonetheless drawn into that brutish world after he unthinkingly fires an air gun at a group of rugby players and hits Malky Johnson (Kevin McKidd, Trainspotting’s Tommy). A “hard man,” Malky is the leader of the Tongs, the gang that reigns over a bleak nearby housing project. Meanwhile, Malky’s childhood sweetheart, Joanne MacGowan (Laura Fraser), has invited Alan to invite her on a date, a development that gives Malky another reason to hate the MacLeans. Alan and Lex have little choice but to turn to the leader of a rival gang, Charlie Sloan (Gary Sweeney), a sharp dresser who professes an interest in Alan’s drawings. “A real working-class Medici,” scoffs Lex of Charlie, who secures his place in Glaswegian posterity by arranging an after-hours expedition into a darkened art museum so that Alan can add the gang leader’s likeness to one of the drawings on display.
From this setup, the events become increasingly contrived. Lex makes a bold move that works out for the worst, and the MacLeans’ nemesis eventually meets an altogether too convenient fate. In this regard, Small Faces recalls MacKinnon’s The Playboys, a film that attempted to balance a believable evocation of small-town 1950s Ireland with overly grand plot complications. Both films offer art as the means of escape from Celtic-fringe provincialism—Scotland liberated by life-drawing classes, Ireland by a traveling theater troupe—but their own narrative flights of fancy undermine the carefully rendered atmosphere.
The escalating violence is not the film’s only garish element; MacKinnon also has a taste for placing the camera overhead, notably for a shot of a gang-war victim being dragged across an ice-skating rink, leaving a swath of blood behind him. Still, the film’s most striking scenes are less epic: Boys bust into a drawing studio in the hope of seeing a nude female model, only to encounter a fat guy in a jockstrap; Lorna MacLean sings a mournful traditional song at a family get-together while the boys’ uncle Andrew (Ian McElhinney), “the only American ever to emigrate to Scotland,” tries to cheer up everyone and Lex sneaks his first drink of liquor; Alan and Lex hoodwink their uncle into having a chat with Bobby about his sexuality, professing to think he might be gay.
There are also moments that presage the upcoming bloodshed, as when Lex’s hands are whipped by a teacher, or Joanne volunteers to smuggle a knife into a club. (In the chivalrous ’60s, she notes, “they don’t search the girls.”) Indeed, this casual acceptance of brutality would be more devastating if the film didn’t ultimately overplay it. Small Faces’ depiction of ’60s small-mindedness is most expressive before it pulls out the stops.
Probably best-known in this country as the director of City on Fire, the film from which Quentin Tarantino borrowed more than a little of his scenario for Reservoir Dogs, Ringo Lam is not the most distinctive of Hong King action directors. Still, he should have been able to improve on the average Jean-Claude Van Damme flick. Of course, so should John Woo.
More ordinary than but just as disappointing as Woo’s Hard Target, Maximum Risk is fairly typical of both Lam and Van Damme. Indeed, the film’s irksome premise reworks Double Impact, in which Van Damme played separated-at-birth twins. This time, tough-guy Mikhail is dead by the time nice-guy Alain discovers he had a brother. After Mikhail is chased through the narrow streets of Villefranche-sur-Mer (a town near Nice that has hosted crews for numerous Hitchcock, James Bond, and Danny DeVito movies), his corpse is introduced to Alain by the latter’s old (French) army buddy Sebastien (no less than Jean-Hugues Anglade, one of several real French actors inexplicably on hand). Then Alain visits his mother (no less than Stéphane Audran, star of everything from Les Biches to Babette’s Feast), who reveals that as a poor young woman she had no choice but to give up one of her sons to a Soviet diplomat who later moved his family to America. Naturellement.
Alain wants to know more, so he heads to New York (represented by a melange of Toronto, Philadelphia, and actual New York locations), where he discovers that his brother was a thug (but with a heart of gold) for the Russian mob in Brooklyn’s Little Odessa. Alain also realizes that his brothers’ former pals didn’t kill him, since when he arrives in New York they assume he’s Mikhail. At first, he reveals the truth only to Mikhail’s girlfriend, Alex (Species’ sex-bomb/space-raptor Natasha Henstridge). After some corrupt federal agents make things even more complicated for the new couple, they decide to return to Nice, where Mikhail has left a lot of cash and an incriminating list in a safe-deposit box only Alain can retrieve. (Remarkably, he doesn’t have to hack into a supersecure computer to get the crucial info.) There, more car crashes ensue as justice is served and true love fulfilled.
Fundamentally, Risk’s intended formula—silly, convoluted plot redeemed by spectacular set pieces—is identical to Lam’s Hong Kong efforts. But the set pieces are generally not all that spectacular; the only one that’s particularly striking is the climactic showdown in a Nice abattoir, where the film invokes (quite possibly unintentionally) the spirit of much stranger predecessors (notably Fassbinder’s In a Year With 13 Moons). Still, the principal difference would seem to be Van Damme. No Chow Yun-Fat, the actor neither embodies nor inspires the berserk spirit of honor and vengeance that makes some sort of sense (not usually literal) of the HK gangster flick’s more lurid developments. He’s dull, and so is Risk.CP