- Rated R
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All photos © Strand Releasing
Reviewed by Bob Westal
implicity often trumps originality at the movies. The set-up for the first feature from writer-director Patrick Hughes is not at all original, but it is terrifically simple. Youngish policeman Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten) and his wife, Alice (Claire van der Boom), have transferred from Melbourne to a tiny town in the Australian outback. Mrs. Cooper is in the middle of a difficult pregnancy and they are moving for the sake of some blood pressure-lowering peace and quiet on the advice of their obstetrician. Stupid, stupid doctor.
At first, things appear literally sleepy as the newcomer catches one of his older cohorts (Kevin Harrington) snoozing on the job. That moment does nothing at all to prepare him for his first meeting with his new superior, Old Bill (Steve Bisley). Bill is a classic movie-style hard case who isn't at all pleased by his new underling, who has managed to lose his gun during the move, especially when he surmises that this outsider might have an aversion to violence, even at the risk of his own life. Soon, word comes that a fearsome and, as it turns out, all-but-unstoppable convicted murderer named Jimmy Conway (Tommy Lewis) has escaped from prison and will return to the police department that captured him in pursuit of the bloodiest possible vengeance. Cooper is in for one very hard first day on the job.
Fans of classic and semi-classic Australian and American westerns, action and horror films in particular will have plenty of references to chew on in "Red Hill," starting with the implacable Conway's Michael Myers/Terminator-like near-indestructibility. The fact that Conway is Aboriginal and the rest of the cast is of European descent is not exactly coincidental, either. At least for American viewers, the parallels seem to make it mandatory that, if the film is ever remade in America, Conway will be Native American. Tommy Lewis, who plays Conway, was also the star of Fred Schepisi's vengeance driven 1978 literary adaptation, "The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith."
That's far from all of it. Director Hughes bravely resisted the allure of digital high definition despite serious budgetary concerns. The decision pays off. His visuals with cinematographer Tim Hudson subtly invoke westerns and Australian cinema of the 1970s. That would include George Miller's not-entirely un-Western sci-fi epic, "Mad Max," which also featured actor Steve Bisley. Also, I didn't notice it until I started writing this review, but you don't quite need a doctorate in film studies to know where the name "Shane Cooper" comes from. (The choice of the name for Cooper's wife is also loaded in numerous ways, from the Australian classic "A Town Like Alice" to the name of Gary Cooper's mother. I'm not sure where 70s glam rocker Alice Cooper fits in to this.)
Don't get the wrong idea. "Red Hill" is not the cinematic nostalgia trip I've made it sound like, nor is it some kind of post-modern meta-fest. In fact, there's nothing post-anything about this movie. I'm sure viewers whose interest in classic films is exactly nil will enjoy this tightly paced, action-packed little thriller. It's just nice to know that its director has the sense to hang on to some of the things that made older films of a certain type work. It works. Writer-director Hughes keeps the tension high throughout most of the proceedings, despite a few right turns from believability.
Hughes also deserves a lot of credit for assembling an efficient and highly effective cast. Star Ryan Kwanten, best known as Anna Paquin's brother of little brain on HBO's "True Blood," creates something well beyond a generic Luke Skywalker-esque good guy. Kwanten makes a very sympathetic, highly credible reluctant action hero. He proves himself an actor well worth your attention, as well as a real trooper in terms of the role's obvious physical challenges. It's also nice to see a non-comedic performer who isn't afraid to look a little bit frightened when dealing with a seemingly unstoppable human killing machine and innumerable other threats.
The supporting cast is also strong. Steve Bisley as the authoritarian head constable has a bit of John Wayne/Lee Marvin humor and super-machismo about him, even as we begin to suspect his motives rather early on. Kevin Harrington as a less than heroic fellow cop who hits a very unlucky streak is memorable in a role that could have been just annoying. Claire van der Boom, the only woman in the film with a significant role, forges a sweet chemistry with Kwanten in scenes that are at the emotional heart of "Red Hill."
Finally, Tommy Lewis, in his nearly silent turn, embodies the key quality of all great movie monsters: their humanity. As the film progresses, and we find out the origin of this increasingly understandable menace, Lewis's work only deepens. It's fine work in a tough role, and I'm no way making light of it when I compare his work to that of the great Boris Karloff in his more overtly monstrous roles.
Despite the many things I honestly enjoyed about "Red Hill," I actually agonized a bit over whether or not to take off half a star from my rating. As I've already implied, there are problems with credibility which at times get in the way of the suspense, starting with the questionable idea of a couple moving during a pregnancy to reduce stress and building to a crescendo with the appearance of a panther. (Don't ask.) Also, more than one character is able to function a bit too well after sustaining what appears to be a rather large amount of blood loss and possible organ damage. And, finally, the aforementioned homages, while not overbearing, might reasonably annoy knowledgeable viewers who don't love that sort of thing as much as I do. Even so, I couldn’t bring myself to remove that extra half-a-star.
Despite the fact that this is a violent and occasionally slightly gruesome movie, there is a core of sweetness to it, perhaps almost despite it creator's intentions. Patrick Hughes may invoke the cynical but humanistic films of the 70s, but alongside his almost too old-fashioned social conscience, which turns a human being into a sort of walking embodiment of a nation's guilt, there's also just a bit of refreshing Saturday-matinee naiveté that's as much Roy Rogers as it is Clint Eastwood. It may sound like a backhanded compliment, but I simply can't resist a suitably R-rated and rather dark action film that's also so oddly innocent.