Bryan Brown makes a great baddie. “Stick with me, son, and I’ll make you a star,” says super bartender Brown to his young protégé Tom Cruise in the 1988 film Cocktail. But when Cruise falls for Brown’s beautiful daughter (Elisabeth Shue), things spiral out of control for everyone involved. In Risk, Brown tells another young protégé, Ben Madigan (Tom Long of The Dish): “Stick with me, son, and I’ll look after ya.” In a familiar turn, Ben falls for Brown’s girlfriend and things again spiral out of control. This time, though, the setting is not the sexy beach bartending scene, but the less than glamorous world of insurance.
Straight out of college and with little to do, Ben joins the team at a Sydney insurance agency called UAI, hoping to “help people.” It’s clear from the get-go that Ben’s deluded, and that his inexperience will get him into trouble. Enter John Kreisky (Brown), UAI’s most notorious claims adjustor. Seeing in Ben an easy target, he takes advantage of his naiveté, convincing him to take part in an “experiment” that is sure to make the two of them very rich.
The scam seems quite simple: visit those affected by road accidents and tell them that if they proceed with their claims against UAI in court, they will end up losing a lot of money and spend much their recovery time dealing with crooked lawyers. Instead, Ben persuades them to settle for 80% of their entitlement, saving them both time and energy. The settlement also saves UAI the other 20%, from which Ben makes a tasty profit. Ben soon finds out that not only is Kreisky ripping off clients, but UAI itself. Ben’s morality kicks in, and he attempts to extract himself from the shady dealings. Kreisky responds by upping the stakes, enlisting the help of fellow scam artist Louise Roncoli (Claudia Karvan) to loosen Ben up. She seduces the kid into a world of fast sex, fast cars, and expensive restaurants: soon he’s letting his ethics take a back seat.
Like Michael Douglas, Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin, and even Ben Affleck, Brown uses his role as nefarious salesman to full advantage. As Kreisky, he struts about the film, posing wickedly. So obvious is his bad-guy attitude that Ben looks more than a little slow on the uptake as to his mentor’s intentions. He blindly accepts Kreisky’s assertion that he is doing nothing illegal and that all involved “get what they’re owed.” It’s not long before Ben changes his mind about the insurance company, deciding that it deserves to be bilked and happily accept the “benefits” that come with the “experiment.” But while Ben is surely naïve, his devotion to Louise simply isn’t credible: she has a habit of getting Ben into trouble, and her “unprofessional” relationship with Kreisky is evident from the start (even Ben has some idea of it).
It’s hard to root for Ben because we never really know what he wants. He’s a conflicted guy, and should be, therefore, an intriguing character, but instead, he just comes across as an idiot. He lets both Kreisky and Louise walk all over him and, because he hates what he’s doing all along, his ultimate betrayal of his partners doesn’t surprise us. Ben has the potential to be simultaneously tough and sweet, moral and manipulative, but instead, he fumbles around and does what he’s told. He goes from wanting to help the victims of insurance scams to wanting to help the scammers get out of their own big bind, with no clear motivation for either impulse.
Such character contrivances are especially hard to overlook because the role so clearly wastes the talents of Tom Long. He is an appealing combination of Guy Pearce and Hugo Weaving, with a wide-eyed innocence that seems to hide great intensity, but he has no chance to demonstrate his abilities here (he only has one opportunity to stretch here, in a confrontation with Louise).
Risk, while at times entertaining, is never the morally complex and emotionally charged film that it might have been. It lacks the human and even the business details that drove one obvious predecessor, Boiler Room, another movie where the central character, Seth (Giovanni Ribisi), becomes what he hates before taking his corrupt bosses down. Risk unfortunately chooses to linger on the corrupt bosses and their scams, and oftentimes becomes a showcase for Brown’s bad guy bravado, leaving too little time to develop its own central, and more important, character, Ben.