Absolutely power corrupts absolutely good movie concepts
Joe (Ralph Fiennes) is a prison guard working under the regime of Maximilian (Tom Hollander, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest), a Napoleonic man with a love of craptacular action films, who took over after the death of his totalitarian father, a man who ran the country with an iron fist. Max, known popularly as "Junior," is more interested in directing his bad movies, meeting celebrities (like his movie-star wife (Lara Flynn Boyle)) and killing people, than running a country. Under his rule, the most dangerous weapon is thought, which is why Thorne (Donald Sutherland) is in prison. A revolutionary embraced by the people, Thorne is watched over by Joe, who falls under the sway of his influential ramblings, which he scribbles on his cell walls in his own feces.
With Joe's help, Thorne takes over the government, and a utopian society develops where everyone lives happily ever after. The end.
Obviously, that's not the case, but it would have been more believable than the second half of this plot. Thorne's government is actually much more controlling and fascist than Junior's, with a definite Islamic tone to it, seen in the treatment of women. The change from thoughtful prisoner to oppressive dictator is so sudden that it is a bit overwhelming, and makes little sense in relation to the rest of the film. There's a definite out-there bent to the film, most obvious in the ridiculous, commercial-ridden newscasts used to show where society stands, but it's not bizarre enough to make Thorne's schizophrenic mindset work in the grand scheme of the movie.
Though the film has a good deal of humorous touches as a part of the satire, especially in the depiction of Junior's reign, once Thorne takes the throne, it's all depression, all the time. Joe becomes a stand-in for civilization as a whole, and suffers non-stop until the credits roll. There are plenty of times where you're begging for something to change, for a bit of hope, but the film charges ahead into a darker future that wraps up in a confusing "twist" ending that may not have been a twist. By the time I got there, I really didn't care after having my spirit beaten down so long.
Though the story wasn't quite right, the film has an attractive look to it, making good use of stock footage and different video treatments, to create a hyper-realistic feel. There are some interesting sets and a few scenes that are visually intriguing, but they don't add up to a cohesive production. It feels like Robert Edwards, who has been a documentary filmmaker, was influenced by the dystopian classics that came before, and those influences made the movie into a quilt of styles and techniques. Perhaps if the film had a more dominant voice and tone, the story would have worked, but it comes off as a heavy-handed parable about the perils of power, and less an interesting movie.
(It's interesting to note that this film doesn't have many parallels to the current Bush administration, when most would expect them from a recent political satire. The cowboy/frat boy attitude of Maximilian is about as close as it gets, and even that's a stretch.)
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is sufficiently active for a film with a modicum of action, while the dialogue is crisp and clear. Much of the film is strictly about conversations, which doesn't make for a dynamic presentation.
Also found on the DVD are the film's theatrical trailer (which is a well-crafted preview), and the trailer for Ed Burns' new flick, The Groomsmen.
The Bottom Line