Guy Ritchie’s cinematic legacy has left an indelible stain on British filmmaking. As a consequence, a new British crime movie such as The Liability, which features as a central component of its plot a hit man and his henchman, arrives on DVD accompanied by the inevitable baggage of preconception. Ritchie has held an insidious influence over many young and emerging British genre directors, and just like him, most seem similarly obsessed with the aesthetics of cartoonish gangsterism and the kind of hybridised US/British crime narrative that has only ever existed in the mythological realms of the contemporary cinematic underworld. (The British crime genre used to produce realistic regional gangster films like Mike Hodges’ excellent Get Carter; now, it offers us things like Ritchie’s RocknRolla, which is essentially a two-hour international MTV pop promo, replete with cockney shouting and muzzle flash. What went wrong?)
The suspicion that The Liability may be just another neo-Ritchie caper is exacerbated when one discovers that the film’s executive producer, Angad Paul, also worked in the same capacity on Ritchie’s Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. More importantly, The Liability’s star is Tim Roth. Roth is undoubtedly a very fine actor, but for many years he was associated with the polymath of pop culture himself, Quentin Tarantino. This in itself is not a problem of course, but the king of postmodern exploitation has in turn been one of Ritchie’s biggest influences, and so the cyclical process of consumption, influence and regurgitation threatened to continue here once again, through the eyes of a new filmmaker, at least.
It’s heartening to discover then, that The Liability’s young director, Craig Viveiros, appears to have largely resisted to tidal-like pull of Ritchie and his faux-cockney nonsense, although he and writer John Wrathall have only managed to produce a moderately effective low-key crime drama, imbued with a vein of gruesome dark comedy. Still, Viveiros has thankfully also avoided the fussy visual stylisation propagated by many recent British gangster films, and for all The Liability‘s flaws, at least the filmmakers have wisely chosen focus on plot and characterisation rather than obsess over unnecessarily slick footage.
The film features Roth as Roy, an aging and cinematically atypical hit man, who is given the task of apprenticing 19-year-old Adam (Jack O’Connell), an errant young man in financial debt to his gruff Scottish gangster stepfather, Peter (Peter Mullan). With the eager but inexperienced Adam treating his new employment opportunity as an exciting and violent game, the normally meticulous Roy begins to find it increasingly difficult to keep the pair’s nefarious work a secret. However, when a rural hit goes wrong and a beautiful young Latvian woman (the excellent Talulah Riley, credited here just as The Girl) discovers the pair in action, Viveiros turns the story on its head, allowing Riley’s fabulously strong female character to become the primary narrative influence. As soon as The Girl is introduced, she is, unbeknownst to Roy and Adam, calling the (gun)shots.
However, despite good performances from the leads (the terrifyingly convincing Mullan is a standout, sounding as if he gargles with gravel), the elements of dark comedy don’t always work, and this is primarily down to issues of tone and characterisation.
Firstly, the supposed transition that Adam makes from disobedient teenage upstart to complicit killer totally stretches the limits of credibility, and it happens far too fast. To be fair, at a very lean 82 minutes, The Liability needs to maintain quite some pace, but nevertheless, is it really believable that within the first fifteen minutes of screen time Adam transforms from a naïve, disrespectful tearaway into a stone-cold sidekick, totally complicit in Roy’s vile and vicious deeds and relishing his own gruesome opportunity to dismember one poor victim with an axe?
Even after this awful act is carried out, Adam continues to lark around, wide-eyed with the novelty of it all and morally oblivious to the depravity and carnage around him, some of it of his own doing. Perhaps Viveiros wanted to make a sociological point about the ease with which a future criminal with latent psychopathic tendencies can quickly reach the point of no return, but I suspect in this case that it’s merely weak character development. One of Adam’s personality traits that does resonate is his near-fetishistic worship of Roy’s gun, but his character lurches between extreme youthful cockiness and coy shyness so regularly and seemingly without reason that it’s hard to see Adam as a believably enigmatic figure.
Roy also displays qualities that seem incongruous to the character as he is first established. Initially, Viveiros cleverly portrays Roy as a rather mundane figure, despite him being involved in such a terrible, illegal and unusual profession. Gloomy and close to retirement, Roy dresses in dark, drab clothing and drives a boring old Ford Granada family saloon (although in one concession to criminality, the car needs to be hot-wired to run). Superficially, he actually seems fairly normal, albeit quiet; this is rather refreshing for a hit man in a contemporary British film, seeing as most others are all about volume and excessive gun play.
Before long, however, Roy produces a small, immaculate attaché case containing some of the tools of his trade; alongside the various bits of paraphernalia is a neat row of two thick Cuban cigars, clipped in and as integral to the interior layout of the case as his lock pickers are. This visual gimmick may have worked as a fun contrivance for the villain in a big budget ‘80s Arnie flick, but it seems to totally contradict Roy’s low-key personality and his deliberate lack of flair and pizazz.
The comedic interplay between Adam and Roy is not always successful, either. Before they have even had a chance to develop any kind of rapport, the straight man/pally sidekick routine kicks in regardless, which seems odd because the pair are essentially still total strangers to one another. Additionally, the film’s biggest problem is its very unpredictable and jarring changes in tone. It takes a great deal of directorial skill and a dynamite script to successfully combine humour and horror in the same narrative (John Landis manages it brilliantly in An American Werewolf in London), but the inconsistency here indicates that the filmmakers were unsure of quite how to weave both elements together seamlessly; as a result, the characters often just appear oddly wacky, behaving contrary to the mood of those unpleasant scenes in the film, the ones that really have no humorous potential at all.
This awkward juxtaposition of brutality and comedy is even more trying when the pair is portrayed as bumbling morons, which is particularly strange considering Roy is supposed to be a cunning expert. In fact, so icily protective is Roy of his identity that he initially orders Adam to never ask about his real name, yet in no time at all both Roy and Adam are openly committing crimes, without disguises, in front of various innocent bystanders. In one later scene, Roy even drags in an ordinary member of the public to help with a big money crime transaction: so much for secrecy! (Also marvel at the armed pair’s unbelievable incompetence during an early murder scene, when a female witness escapes on foot from right in front of them and even manages to steal their car, despite being weighed down with a huge rucksack).
It’s unfortunate that The Liability is weakened by certain narrative issues. Indeed, there’s a brilliant scene towards the end that demonstrates just how great the film could have been with a little more consistency. It features an altercation between Roy and Adam on the open ground in front of a huge foundry. It’s dark, and the brilliant orange glow generated by the massive flames rising from the foundry’s stacks behind them threatens to silhouette most everything around; it also conjures up frightening parallels with the hottest parts of Dante’s Inferno. Indeed, this violent sequence comes at a point in the film when these characters’ lives are spiraling chaotically out of control, and Viveiros embraces the moment fantastically, using his extraordinary location and striking visuals to symbolise the fact that Roy and Adam are teetering on the edge of a chasm, with both of them in danger of falling into the hellish abyss forever. It’s a great artistic moment, and a superb synthesis of sound, image and subtext, all brilliantly rendered.
With that sort of ability, it’s possible that Viveiros could bloom into great director in the future, even if on this occasion The Liability doesn’t quite achieve its aims, nor live up to its initial promise.
The are no extras on the disc.