This review is based on a promotional disc and is only reflective of the final product in terms of the movie itself. I cannot rate technical or bonus features.
The opening scene of 44 Inch Chest is fantastic. The camera slowly moves through a trashed home, Badfinger's "Without You" (as covered by Harry Nilsson) playing on the stereo. It winds its way through the carnage, eventually finding a man laying on the floor. The camera moves forward, goes over the man, and settles on the face of a distraught Ray Winstone, barely breathing, as Pete Ham launches into the chorus. "I can't live, if living is without you..." You pretty much know all you need to know about what is going on in that moment. This man has been jilted, and he's torn to pieces.
It's a beautifully directed scene. Malcolm Venville uses movement, mystery, and a spectacular song cue to draw us into his film, to make us want to know who did this to big ol' Ray Winstone and what he's going to do about it. It can only get better from here, right?
Sadly, no. 44 Inch Chest goes the other way. Written by Louis Mellis and David Scinto, the team behind Sexy Beast, 44 Inch Chest doesn't go the distance. It starts out strong, confident of its course, ready to pace itself, but something goes awry on the way to the finish line.
Winstone plays Colin Diamond, an aged gangster, leading a cast of seasoned British actors. Tom Wilkinson is the pragmatic Archie, Ian McShane the flashy homosexual Meredith, John Hurt the grizzled Old Peanut, and Stephen Dillane is the tough guy. These men pick Colin up, go and find the man who slept with his wife (she is played by Joanne Whalley), and lock "Loverboy" (Melvil Poupaud) in a closet in an empty, crumbling building in the middle of the city. Once he is there, it becomes a question of what to do with him. Can Colin pull himself together to kill the hustler, a French waiter who is considerably younger than these old crooks? Or is the nature of love forgiveness?
44 Inch Chest is a talking picture. Mostly confined to two rooms, barring some flashbacks, I was actually surprised that it wasn't based on a stage play. It's set up like one, and if you like stories that are driven entirely by dialogue, then you're going to like a good 2/3 of this film. The gangsters debate the proper course of action, fight amongst themselves (Peanut and Meredith are regularly at odds), and tell stories. You couldn't ask for a better cast to carry this out. It's like a master class in acting, each man playing his part and yet willing to cede the floor when required. As a team, when they move around their hostage like predatory animals, verbally jabbing at him with insults and raunchy accusations, it's electrifying. You are watching a championship team toss the ball around.
The problem is, I don't think the writers knew exactly what they wanted to pull out of this scenario, and so they cop-out by tossing a bunch of dream sequences into the last act. The boys leave Colin alone with his enemy, and he starts to imagine his friends and his wife arguing the mechanics of relationships. Amidst this, he slowly faces up to what got him to this point and some of his own nastiness. We're supposed to get a feeling of redemption here, of purging the bad feelings and coming out the other side, but it doesn't work. The stranger it gets, the emptier the sentiment. Why have the men fight it out for real when you can just put John Hurt's head on Joanne Whalley's body?
44 Inch Chest is ultimately a waste of good talent. The support team is operating at the top of their form here. The movie looks incredible. Cinematographer Dan Landin (The Uninvited) gives the rundown torture chamber a slimy glow, and editor Rick Russell knows how to work his way around a complicated conversation. The film leaps from one bad man to another, making sure we know what everyone is doing; even if they are just listening, we should know how they are listening. It's the writing and the directing that squanders all this good work. Venville, Mellis, and Scinto have created their own locked-room mystery, and they can't solve the puzzle. They've handed their characters the pieces, but they don't seem to trust them to put it all together. It's like they are amnesiac film noir protagonists who don't realize they are the source of all their own troubles even as they are standing at a mirror and the culprit is staring them right in the face.
I can't really judge the video quality of 44 Inch Chest. I am reviewing the film from a promo disc that has intermittent black-and-white sequences and watermarking, compressed onto a single disc with a second film. The final product is supposed to have a 1.85:1 anamorphic image, and I assume it will be better than what I am seeing. Even if it isn't, the promo version is all right. The resolution is fine, and the colors look really good when they are hot, though a little murky in the darker picture elements.
As with the video, I have no real idea how to judge what I am hearing here against what will be on the final disc (promo materials promise a 5.1 mix, as well as English and Spanish subtitles). What I heard was clear, with decent balance. There is actually a point in the movie where an off-screen dripping faucet can be heard low in the mix, and I had to pause the disc because I thought my own faucet was leaking.
No extras were included for review, though advance information says the disc will contain the following bonus features:
* Commentary with Director Malcolm Venville
* Behind the Scenes
* Interview with Malcolm Venville
Memo to Image Entertainment's Webmaster: "Malcolm" has two Ls.
Rent It. The first 2/3 of 44 Inch Chest are worth spending some time with. Tom Wilkinson, Ian McShane, and John Hurt star as aging gangsters trying to help their pal Ray Winstone deal with the youngster who's been sleeping with his wife, and in terms of cast, you can't do better than that. They are handed a wordy script, and they go to town on it, relishing the language and the back and forth. The story falls apart, though, and the creative team putting it together stops trusting their material and gropes around for an ending. The final act of the movie is absurd and pointless.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.