Monday, 11 July 2011
Running Time: 75 mins
Directed & Produced by Steve Lawson & Simon Wyndham
I've been meaning to check out The Silencer for a long time. Firstly, it's a no-budget British film. I'm all for no-to-low budget filmmakers, doubly so if they happen to hail from my homeland.
Secondly, I thought it looked cool and that the concept had some definite potential with its' faceless/voiceless hero clad in black motorcycle leathers and a tinted helmet.
Unfortunately, it seems The Silencer first surfaced on DVD in the UK on the now-defunct Black Horse Entertainment label, which means that due to its' relative rarity, it can be difficult to scare up a copy at the sort prices I'm willing to pay when taking a punt on a low budget indie.
Sure, you can get dirt cheap ex-rental versions off of ebay, but I'm as anally-retentive about not having DVDs with 'RENTAL COPY' plastered
over them as I am anally-retentive about having proper retail versions with a sleeve and all the trimmings. What can I say...I am a DVD snob, otherwise I would have probably downloaded it off the internet or something. Where's the fun in that, I ask you?
So I was like the dog with two bones, caught between the affordable yet undesirable ex-rental copy or the brand new and sealed but priced at more than I want to pay retail version, and unable to decide on either.
Then lo and behold, out of the blue, no less than Steve Lawson (not to be confused with fellow UK director Steven Lawson) himself emails me and asks me if I'd like a review copy. Thus inadvertently solving my dilemma whilst simultaneously disproving the maxim 'If you don't ask, you don't get.'
I didn't ask, but I did get. With this is mind, I'm going to purposely NOT ask low budget indie filmmakers to send me their screeners, because the asking approach doesn't seem to be working...maybe I should make the first move and contact them? We shall see.
So, the moral of the story is that if you send me your movie, book, comic, fanzine, whatever...I WILL REVIEW IT. Steve Lawson figured it out, and this here review is the result. I am as good as my word!
So, without any further ado, here is my review of The Silencer
Glenn Salvage is Michael Eastman, an elite anti-narcotics cop who's been double crossed and left for dead. Having been shot full of lead by the henchman of the local drug kingpin, he awakes in hospital some time later to discover that thanks to some pioneering surgical techniques, his life has been saved, but his vocal chords have not. Whilst his wounds leave him mute, in a Darkman-esque twist it appears that an unexpected side-effect of the surgery has rendered him impervious to pain...but not from injury.
Suspended from the force, Eastman must now struggle to come to terms with his injuries, clear his name and exact vengeance upon those who have robbed him of everything, including the love of his life who has now shacked up with one of his corrupt former team-mates. Drug dealers, hoodlums, corrupt cops...you name it, he's going after them with a vengeance.
Spiritually, the movie feels like it should have been shot in the late 80's/early 90's in New York. I feel a more bleak urban environment (or more of the bleak urban environment that is already there) would have complimented the similarly-bleak mood of the piece. As it is, a lot of the movie is shot in the beautiful English countryside in bright sunshine (which is a rare enough combination in and of itself!) which seems a little incongruous with the overall mood of the piece.
Some full-on 80's cheese sequences shot with either blue gels or filters as the menacing back-lit silhouette figure of The Silencer suddenly strides through one of those ubiquitous clouds of steam/smoke
that always seem to be rising out of somewhere in 80's urban action flicks (like the iconic title card shot from the opening credits of 'The Equalizer') would definitely have hit the spot.
There's a subway sequence that certainly captures the right sort of mood (I'd dare say the film was given an 18 certificate on the strength of some of the grafitti alone...disgusting!), and some more sequences along those lines would certainly not have gone amiss.
One thing the filmmakers have unquestionably got right is the wonderfully ominous synth signature we hear whenever villains suddenly realise that The Silencer is there...again pure 80's, but absolutely bang on the money, thematically-speaking!
Image quality is excellent, and the use of camera movement is subtle and well-judged (as opposed to the
'We're paying for the jib/dolly for the whole day, so we might as well use it for every shot!' brigade, the spiritual twins of the irritatingly ubiquitous 'Let's use every effect and transition in Final Cut Pro just to show that we can' people).
Particularly impressive also is the use of reveals. Both Lawson and Wyndham have professional experience, so we're not looking at your usual camcorder jockeys here, and thankfully it shows.
There are certain scenes and a couple of performances which occasionally serve to betray the true budgetary level of the work, but then there are also those which punch far above the financial weight of the production too. Maye Choo has gone on to carve out a nice career in television dramas such as 'Honest' (NSFW), and Jim Clossick was also very impressive, particularly near the end of the film. I've seen a lot worse, but taking the rough with the smooth this is a very passable and fairly professional looking production. Dare I say it but this is the kind of movie that should be turning up late night on Movies4men or Movies24 (before they start with their 'erotic' programming). I'd much rather watch this than one of those second run made-for-TV Syfy channel disaster movies which all seem to closely follow the Jaws/Day After Tomorrow template.
Action and fight sequences are great. Cinematically, the subway sequence is the standout, but I think my favourite overall is his second visit to the country estate of drug dealer Sirrus Rook, complete with a pair of butterfly knives (for those not au fait with these things, I'm talking about the meat cleaver sized Chinese knives rather than the Balisong flick knives which are sometimes erroneously called Butterfly knives).
Butterfly Knives...that's what I'm talking about!
There's also a pleasing dust-up at a car scrapyard, with all the smashing of windscreens and denting of bodywork your heart could possibly desire.
Whether they needed to be or not is another question. Truth be told, if we're going to be picky, I'd probably say that The Silencer specifically belongs in the genre of vigilante films. There's definitely some martial arts action, but the nature of this particular beast is definitely
in the tradition of Death Wish and The Exterminator (the chief influence on the film, so much so that one of the characters is named Ginty by way of homage to Robert Ginty). The commentary mentions specific pains being taken to limit the style of fighting to reflect the condition of The Silencer, holding off on the big moves until the showpiece finale. Obviously, the budget did not stretch to huge amounts of onscreen gunplay with squibs going off everywhere, so hand-to-hand combat makes a very decent substitute. As it is, I think they've done a great job of serving their narrative needs (of a physically limited character) whilst still fulfilling the requirement for action.
Would an explosion or two have made it a better film? Maybe, but then we would be straying away from the vigilante genre and firmly into the territory of the action movie. Thankfully, the filmmakers elected not to use CGI explosions or anything like that. Sometimes, less is more, and nothing would ruin the suspension of disbelief more than crappy CGI. In the end, there's a lot to be said for 'keeping it real'.
What the movie does lack is a strong central antagonist or villain, which I believe is in part due to there being perhaps one too many 'key' villains, and not enough screen time being available to properly develop them and establish them as truly credible threats to our hero. There are five by my count, and with a running time of 75 minutes, that doesn't leave a lot when you consider the main character, love interest, and any of the slightly more incidental characters too (like the drug dealing Irish terrorists, for example).
Lawson himself plays one of them, and mentions in his commentary that he was struck by just how much he is in the movie, and concedes that it's probably too much.
Of course, this is one of the drawbacks to having the main character be mute...whilst there are numerous non-verbal things you can do to move the plot along, you're not going to be able to get away with this for the lion's share of the movie. The filmmaker's have obviously realised this and opted to have other characters pick up the slack in terms of dialogue and exposition rather than use flashbacks, dream sequences or internal monologues to give Eastman a voice.
At this budget level, it's a lot easier and cheaper to shoot something with Steve Lawson, because as one of the producers, he's always there. Also, lest people jump to the wrong conclusion and think that it's one of those oft-seen exercises in ego-gratification whereby the producer assiduously casts themselves in their own movie, make themselves look like a total badass, hog all the best lines and end up either in bed or the jacuzzi with one or more nubile and naked young women who, but for the fact they are being paid, would otherwise be out of said producer's league (...and believe you me, I have seen a fair few of those kind of movies), you could not be more wrong.
Lawson arguably plays the least likeable and most unsympathetic character in the entire film. A villain, but more of a pitifully detestable one than a 'cool' or fearsome villain, and without wishing to give too much away, he has a wonderful 'just when you thought he couldn't go any lower' moment towards the end of the film as he tries to placate a local drug dealer. A self-promoting role it is not, but there is a lot of it.
In addition to the inability of the central protagonist to speak is the fact that Eastman
is also fitted with a neck brace (which he removes before going into action), which prevents any movement of the head, including minimal movements such as nodding.
In such a situation where the tools of both verbal and non-verbal expression are either seriously curtailed or removed completely, some actors might tend towards
overcompensating with their facial gestures, which can have the unfortunate side-effect of descending into unintentional comedy. Fortunately, Salvage avoids falling into this trap in his depiction of Eastman. Another bonus is that they probably saved a small fortune in ADR costs by conceiving the lead character in this fashion...the filmmakers never mention this as being in any way responsible for informing or motivating their decision to have a mute lead, so I'm going to assume it's just a happy accident. If not, it's a devilishly clever money saver.
The only dialogue scene Glenn Salvage gets to do in the whole movie!
I'm happy to report that the single disc is heaving with extras, including a making of featurette, outttakes, and not one but two
(count 'em!) commentaries!
***PLEASE NOTE: Steve Lawson has informed me that the version put out by Blackhorse in the UK does NOT contain the commentary tracks like my review copy, but does contain the other extras. Please bear this in mind when I'm talking about the commentaries. I was unaware of this at the time of writing my review, but I'm leaving the sections regarding the commentaries in because I believe they help paint a fuller picture.***
The second commentary involves Lawson flying solo and giving a 'Low budget Filmmaking 101' of sorts, which is extremely honest in its' appraisal
of the film and its' inherent faults.
It's another one of these films which has been shot over the course of a year rather than a few weeks. Of course, this sort of thing matters not a jot to the man in the street, who expects it to be as good as your average $50 million Hollywood action movie. Personally, I can't help but admire what they've managed to put together with so little money.
It's highly interesting to see and hear what went wrong and how the problems were overcome, or how they impacted upon what was initially planned.
The Silencer is a film I like 'as is', off the bat as a stand alone feature, but I dare say that you'll appreciate it a lot more and respect the
achievement of the filmmakers after having listened to the commentaries. I know I certainly did.
For example, regarding my contention about too many weakly-established key villains (or 'end of level boss' types, for the video game geeks among us), there is one who is obviously there to provide a physical counterpoint to The Silencer. Alas, the actor playing him injured his leg, meaning that they were unable to display his kicking prowess in an earlier scene where he's working over a punchbag,
and that the proposed 'epic showdown' also had to be cut drastically short as well. The idea was sound enough, but unfortunately the filmmaking fates conspired to prevent it being realised in the intended manner.
Of course, in the ad hoc think-on-your-feet world of low budget filmmaking, you are going to get the occasional curveball thrown at you. Life certainly threw a few lemons in their direction on this shoot, but they made lemonade accordingly.
What's most bizarre to me is that one of the best and most striking scenes in the movie seems to have come about completely by chance. After The Silencer has dispatched a bunch of would-be rapists in the subway, he moves towards their intended victim, an Oriental girl, a reaches out to her, but she recoils and
runs away, terrified of the mute brute lurching towards her, incapable of offering so much as a reassuring word. Given that Eastman's estranged love interest is also Oriental, I feel this scene serves as a wonderful encapsulated metaphor which both mirrors and echoes his plight. Neither commentary track draws attention to any intent
behind it (I'd be crowing about it if I'd thought up putting something like that in, let me tell you...),
so I can only assume it is a happy accident, even though the fact it is shot in slow motion would tend to suggest that some thought went into it.
Either way, it really works as a cinematic device. In truth, it would have still worked with any female, but the fact we are talking about two women of similar appearance and ethnicity makes it a doubly bizarre coincidence, but doubly effective in a visual terms at the same time. For me, the single most memorable and resonant scene of the whole movie.
We later learn that this apparently coincidental casting of two ethnically-similar females also served to inform the characterisation of one of the villains (a drug dealer with something of a taste for ladies of the Asian persuasion), and also part of the storyline in the final third of the film (wherein Lawson's character reaches a whole new depth of scumbaggery).
There's also a sequence contrived to get a little 'production value' out of a real life motorcycle spill on-set. Again, whilst I like the film as is, it's only after getting the inside scoop on the making of it that you really begin to fully appreciate it for what it is.
Whilst scouring the web for some pictures with which to tart up my review, I happened across the Tesco DVD Rental page for the movie, wherein one disgruntled reviewer from Cardiff complains about wasting 90 minutes of their weekend on the film (which only has a 75 minute running time...go figure), and claims the story line rips off the Steven Seagal film 'HARD TO KILL' as well, which it plainly does not.
Another makes the ludicrous claim that The Silencer is a 'Rip off from every film with martial arts in'.
Just take a moment to reflect upon the outright stupidity of that statement. Aside from the obvious physical improbability and impracticality of such a notion, this plainly laughable assertion is easily disproved. For example, at no point in the film does Salvage homage Van Damme by doing the splits or flashing his bum, there's no wirework whatsoever, and absolutely no ninjas either.
It's a good job Tesco's doesn't rent hardcore porn DVDs (....yet. Every little helps, after all), lest he accuse the director of Sex-Starved Sorority Sluts of ripping off Cum Chugging Co-Ed Cheerleaders because their movie also features a scene where some guy ejaculates on some chick's face.
Seriously, some people do get out of their pram over nothing these days! Possibly they are getting it confused with one of the other films (at least three more by my count) called 'The Silencer', one of which stars the American Ninja himself, Michael Dudikoff!
Dudikoff's cool, but he'll never out-ninja Richard Harrison
Or this one:
Anyway, that aside, I'd definitely scarf up a retail DVD version of this if I come across it at a price I'm amenable to. Yes, I'm one of those sad people who likes them in the case with the sleeve and everything. I still buy books made from paper too. And read them.
The Silencer was actually pretty much the film I expected it to be. I could tell from the trailer that it was a cut above most low-budget stuff, and I wasn't wrong. I'm not going to lie to you and pretend it's the greatest thing since sliced bread or that it raises the bar clean out of sight. In the end, it's just an extremely decent little movie, nothing more, nothing less. Don't go in expecting a Hollywood blockbuster and you won't come out disappointed.
The storyline would definitely benefit from a little simplification, and some of the performances are a little patchy in places, but that's just a matter of personal taste. Some of the longer dialogue sequences would definitely have benefited from some intercutting of different shots. Alas, shots require set-ups, set-ups require time, and time requires money, which is something that is in short supply at this level of filmmaking. Thus, sacrifices have to be made.
In terms of mood, execution, and action scenes, The Silencer delivers quite handsomely. In the course of writing his review, I've watched it three times (once with the soundtrack, then once with each commentary), and even with the rough edges I feel I could quite happily watch it again at some point. It's very easy to watch, possibly due to the slightly shorter than average running time, although it's not noticeably short and is well paced throughout.
As I write this, the usually-Satanic IMDB has it clocked as a 6.7, which isn't probably too far from the truth, and when you consider how little was spent on it and the manner in which it was produced, it's an achievement and a half. One shudders to think what the team behind it might be capable of if given a budget somewhere between a luxury car and a small house.
If you want to make your own low budget independent films however, this one is definitely required viewing. If anything, I'd recommend it to aspiring filmmakers before martial arts fans, such is the amount of insight and revelation provided by the commentaries. As I said in my review of Infestation, I much prefer open and honest commentaries as opposed to the saccharine Hollywood ones where everybody and everything is either 'great', 'fantastic' or 'amazing'. It's refreshing to see filmmakers who not only realise what they've done wrong or could have done better, but also own up to it as well.
So, to paraphrase a famous song, as far as low budget action flicks go 'Silence(r) is golden'. If you spot a copy at a price you like, my advice would be to snap it up post haste.