Alistair Dickinson

Director Sharon Maguire tries to play with the thriller genre in Incendiary, but makes a big mess in the process.


Director: Sharon Maguire
Cast: Michelle Williams, Ewan McGregor, Mathew MacFayden, Sidney Johnston, Nicholas Gleaves, Usman Khokhar
Distributor: Velocity / Thinkfilm
Rated: R
Year: 2008
US DVD release date: 2009-05-05

Incendiary, the sophomore effort of Bridget Jones’s Diaries director Sharon Maguire, advertises itself in most of its promotional materials as a fast-paced modern thriller. Maguire, however, attempts to make something more than a genre flick, and unfortunately creates a disjointed, uneven picture in the process.

The film centers on a district in London’s East End where crammed, government-run tower blocks and their low-income residents share a street with expensive, renovated townhouses occupied by upper-middle class professionals. About the only thing the neighbors seem to have in common with each other is their shared love of the local football club, the Arsenal.

The film’s protagonist, played by Michelle Williams, is a young woman living in one of the council apartments, where she keeps house for her husband, Lenny -- a distant figure who is constantly on-call as the bomb-defuser for an anti-terrorism unit – and her four-year-old-son, the only bright spot in what seems to be a bleak, grueling daily routine.

One night, the young mother meets a young reporter (Ewan McGregor) from the upscale part of the neighborhood while waiting for her husband to come back from attending to a bomb-scare. She is quickly attracted by this glimpse of ‘something different’, but also is instantly assailed by the guilt any abandonment of her heroic husband and adoring son would bring on. Before she has time to resolve this situation, however, a horrific terrorist attack blows apart the lives of the film’s characters, and Williams and her neighbors are left to try and piece themselves back together, with mixed results.

This film has several problems, not the least of which is the script. It accomplishes the rare feat of giving talented actors and actresses dialogue which is horribly clichéd, yet still manages to sound like nothing anyone has or would ever say in the history of mankind. It’s painful to watch McGregor and Matthew MacFayden -- who plays the possibly-shady chief of Lenny’s unit -- struggle to invest any meaning in so many awful, almost nonsensical, romantic speeches while the over-the-top score swells in the background.

This is a huge issue in a movie that has decided to add both soap-opera-worthy romantic complications and a sensitive look at how victims deal with grief (two of the more discernible attempted extra-genres) to its real-world-terrorism-thriller frame. Not only do the various elements clash with one another, they are poorly fashioned in and of themselves, creating a hodgepodge of mismatching jigsaw pieces with very little detail painted on them in the first place.

To make matters worse, none of the film’s many, interwoven subplots has an ending that is either satisfying or not completely ridiculous. The conspiracy that eventually is found to lie behind the bombings is neither shocking nor believable (or interesting) upon its revelation. None of the romantic engagements come to any kind of noticeable conclusion either, which is strange given the time spent on Williams' and McGregor's flirtations at the beginning of the story.

As for the main characters attempts to deal with grief, it’s depressing to think that a movie that takes her issues so seriously can honestly believe that its ending gives her closure. What’s even more frustrating is that while all of the main characters are supposed to be interconnected and to affect each other both in terms of the plot and emotionally, the viewer is never convinced that any of them have much of a stake in each others’ lives whatsoever.

It’s a shame, because the film does have some good moments, but they are not enough to save this drowning mongrel. Williams is the story’s real highlight (Maguire, once again, casts a blonde American gal as a Brit, with excellent results), admirably exhibiting the way the troubles of her character’s life are pressing on her happiness and sanity. But the direction and script shoot her in the foot at every turn.

While considering a fling with the reporter, Williams exudes a mature sexuality that is miles more intoxicating than any of the “sex-kitten” poses she put on in her Dawson’s Creek days. Yet this is all ruined by a subsequent sex-scene that's laugh-out-loud silliness belies the heavenly strings that are used to score it. A friendly relationship that develops between Williams and a young boy -- whose father may have been involved in the terrorist attack -- is perhaps one of the film’s best section, Williams’ sighs and glances at the child perfectly evoking the emotions he and his situation stir in her. But again, all goodwill this may brew in the viewer is dissipated when this subplot ends with an absurd standoff at a tube station.

Maguire, in only her second round behind the director’s chair of a feature, may have done alright directing a less risky film in the thriller genre. Her ineptitude with love-scenes and action set-pieces aside, she does a fine job capturing the Euro-tones of London, framing each take perfectly and lingering for just the right amount of time on shots of the tube, the beach the young mother frequently visits, and the neighborhood most of the action takes place in. And she certainly captures the tension surrounding Williams and her associates capably enough.

Unfortunately, the script demands that in addition to this, she must add distractingly-odd touches like a flotilla of tribute-balloons over the city (a distressingly obvious symbol which becomes a distressingly important plot device) or an imaginary letter written by Williams’ character to Osama Bin Laden. With a leaner and better-written script, she might have given us something at least competent, something more like this year’s The International. Instead, we get a poor-man’s International, mixed with a less popular Lifetime Movie of the Week, and squeezed into an early-draft of Unfaithful. Sadly, the whole is not even equal to the sum of some incredibly faulty parts.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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