It’s all Guy Ritchie’s fault. While the British crime film has been a viable part of the country’s artform since the end of the War, it wasn’t made ‘cool’ until directors like Neil Jordan (Mona Lisa) and John Mackenzie (The Long Good Friday) turned it into a post-modern statement on the country’s growing disconnect. Thanks to the influence of a certain Mr. Tarantino and his rapid fire, dialogue driven defiance, however, a new breed of artist wanted in. Enter Mr. Ritchie, who used a combination of bravado and basic cinematic skills to turn Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels into a UK revelation. While his stay at the top was a tad short -two films and then abject failure -there’s no denying his ongoing influence. It is clear from the first few frames of the new horror thriller Dead Cert.
Like Fight Club meshed with The Hunger, minus the starring roles for Jason Statham and Vinnie Jones, we meet former boxer/retired gangster Freddie Frankham (Craig Fairbrass) as he watches his girlfriend’s brother beat another man into a bloody pulp during an illegal underground match. While he is trying to go straight to make his gal (Lisa McAllister) happy, he finds running a lap dancing club can be a bit stressful, especially when an old street associate (Dexter Fletcher) brings a Romanian mobster by. Seems the Eastern European thug (Billy Murray) wants to buy the place out from under our hero, and doesn’t like taking “No” for an answer. In the meantime, a crazy old man (Steven Berkoff) starts harassing Freddie, telling a wild tale about an antiquated legend, a black church, a cult of vampires, and a leader named “The Wolf.” What no one knows is that this evil leader is indeed back, and is planning to reclaim what he believes belongs to him.
Overstuffed with subplot and underdeveloped fright wise, Dead Cert is still a decent scary movie amalgamation. The crime stuff sizzles…sometimes, and the last act stand-off is like From Dusk ‘Til Dawn done up in a high tech UK disco. Yet for all its attempts at merging two distinct cinematic types, the end result feels scattered and incomplete. Perhaps it’s all the time spent working through the various interpersonal issues and professional partnerships. By the time the blood starts flowing, we’ve been forced through family and friend cross ups and quagmires…and that doesn’t include the nods to Jack the Ripper, the various aspects of Romanian folklore, and the oddball comic elements. It’s as if director Steve Lawson and his writer Ben Shillito (who adapts the ideas of four others) couldn’t decide if they wanted to go straight scare or contemporary crime. The attempted merger is messy.
The main reason the collaboration is so weak is that both elements barely work. We never get a clear idea of why Freddie left the game, especially when you consider he seems to still be knee deep in it. His relationship with his lover is strong, but is it so end-all, be-all that she can really get him to stop being a crime lord? Then there are the various associates surrounding him, people of peculiar quirks but no real clear lineage. Associates die, guns are fired, and yet we aren’t quite sure who is avenging who. Even when Freddie loses everything during a fight, we aren’t sure why he would bet on such shaky stakes. He’s a question mark, albeit one that definitely looks the part of a former pugilist turned tyrant. Similarly, the story of The Wolf and his need for Freddie’s place is so out there, so overreaching in its mandate for a massive suspension of disbelief that it’s hard to get a handle on.
Elsewhere, we become enamored of things that never pay off. Some of the strippers represent interesting avenues that are never pursued, and the various neckbiter associates seemed carved out of a single horror cliche (read: Eurotrash as evil). When the Van Helsing substitute struts in, trying to get everyone to buy his monster malarkey, we hope his backstory is potent. It’s not. Indeed, what Dead Cert tries to get away with is a simply strategy of style over substance – or perhaps put a better way, attitude over actuality. There is a great mood established early on, one highlighted by Lawson’s frequent directorial flourishes. Sure, he paints with slo-mo a bit too much, but we get the grittiness of this UK dive jive. Unfortunately, narrative cohesiveness and internal logic dooms the dynamic.
In fact, had it really stayed true to its main inspirations – Snatch, and the Tarantino/Rodriguez killers meet creatures epic – Dead Cert would have probably worked better. The homage may have been more obvious, but by embracing instead of avoiding such inspirations, something significant may have resulted. Lawson seems capable. In fact, given the right material, one imagines he could deliver when it comes to shivers. On the other hand, the script seems stunted, stripped of important information for more and more meaningless confronts. By the time the “hoping for a sequel” finale makes its intentions known, this movie has worn out its welcome. We allowed it to manipulate us for nearly 80 minutes. The last ten truly test our modern macabre tolerances.
As with many attempted genre-jumping types, Dead Cert fails as much as it succeeds. It can’t quite find a way to make everything flow organically, especially when it comes to turning back alley British gangs into sophisticated targets of ethereal terror. Everything looks right, there’s plenty of mood, and while not gory enough (not by a long shot), there is still a decent amount of vein draining. While horror films have long stopped being terrifying, trying to be something different is just not the answer. Dead Cert drives a hard bargain indeed. Once you buy in, however, the payout is paltry at best.