Thursday 6 February 2014

Left for Dead

Director: Ross Boyask
Writer: Adrian Foiadelli
Producer: Phil Hobden
Cast: Glenn Salvage, Andy Prior, Adam Chapman
Country: UK
Year of release: 2005
Reviewed from: screener

The main problem with the otherwise generally terrific Left for Dead lies at the start of the film. Consequently I shall deal with this problem first, up front, before explaining in the rest of the review why this is very probably the best British martial arts film ever made.

We kick off with two gangs of, well, gangsters fighting each other on a patch of inner city wasteland (and in some adjacent building). Like all the fights in Left for Dead, this is brilliantly done: excellent choreography matched with peerless editing makes the many individual combats, which together make up the overall fight, some of the very best you’ll see in a modern low-budget action film.

But - and it’s a big but - that’s all we have for several minutes: fighting. Starting an action movie with a big action scene has rarely worked in any motion picture and it doesn’t work here. For a sequence like this to have any meaning beyond simply movement and sound, we have to care what happens. And that means we have to be bothered who wins. And that, in turn, means that we need to know who is doing the fighting.

Because we lurch right into this without any preamble, there is no way to know who we should be rooting for in any given scrap. Because everyone dresses the same we can’t tell who is in which gang or even how many people are involved. Whenever we see somebody killed or seriously injured, is that a good thing because it reduces the number of our heroes’ opponents or is it a bad thing because it reduces the number of his allies?

Sorry, but watching people I don’t know beat up, shoot and stab people I don’t know for some reason that I’ve not been told is simply tedious and boring, however well photographed. Jumping straight into this without explanation or introduction reduces what should be a major dramatic sequence to the level of a training video.

This drags on for a full ten minutes (including, for no apparent reason, a flashback to a different fight in which one of the protagonists is Insiders director Steve Lawson) and it is only after everyone else has been killed that we discover who are central characters are: round-faced Dylan (Kevin Akehurst, who was also ‘lighting director’), gaunt Taylor (Adrian Foiadelli, who wrote the script) and ponytailed Williams (Glenn Salvage: The Silencer), who are all working for a crime boss named Kincaid (Adam Chapman: The Penalty King).

A flashback reveals that Williams is planning to go straight after this one last job but Kincaid isn’t keen on the idea so he has asked Taylor and Dylan to take him out afterwards. However, a distraction allows Williams to escape just as his comrades pull their guns on him and, despite a massive chase by a bunch of motorcyclists who appear from nowhere, Williams gets away.

At this point it becomes apparent that the massive fight between Kincaid’s trio and the goon squad of a rival boss named Murphy, which we have just patiently sat through, has no bearing on the plot at all. Which is annoying and poor repayment for our patience. Realistically, the opening fight should have been condensed into two minutes and played under the opening titles (perhaps after a very short scene of the three men to establish them as characters in their own right, disposing of anonymous grunts). Instead, the opening titles introduce us by name to a whole bunch of similar-looking characters, some of whom we won’t meet for quite some time, long after we have forgotten what they look like.

So: grumble over. Except to note that following the above plan would have shaved ten minutes off the film’s rather extravagant 115-minute running time.

But let’s get down to business because once we get to the meat of the story, Left for Dead is, frankly, astounding. Which is to say that the plot is coherent and credible (for the genre), the characters are rounded and empathetic (for the genre) and the action is fast, tough and exciting (for a British film). I don’t want that to sound like I’m damning with feint praise. We’re all adults here, we’ve all seen action films and we all know that the genre is almost universally populated by simplistic films in which one-dimensional characters go through the motions in plots that are either childishly linear and simplistic or insanely complex and nonsensical. But the good films within this genre either manage to overcome these stereotypical failings somehow or, at least, acknowledge them and then cheerfully plough into some crazy-shit action which kicks arse both literally and metaphorically.

Sadly, most low-budget British martial arts pictures - which is to say: British martial arts pictures, for there is no other kind round these parts - can’t even manage that and although some may be enjoyable to those of us who appreciate this sort of thing, it is almost unheard of to find a British actioner which could be genuinely recommended to those who do not specifically love the genre. But - here it is.

So anyway, Williams goes on the run and ends up in the flat of a woman named Sonya (Vicki Vilas) whom he thinks he can trust - but she drugs him and calls in Kincaid’s goons. Williams then makes an extraordinarily daring, clever and entertaining escape, kicking the film up a notch.

Meanwhile, in the B-plot, Kincaid controls the local kickboxing scene - and the gambling which surrounds it - and instructs trainer Billy Rourke (producer Phil Hobden credited as ‘PL Hobden’) to tell hotly-tipped rising star Danny Kelso (Andy Prior) to throw his next fight. When Kelso wins the fight, Taylor has the job of breaking all ten of his fingers before banishing him from Hope City.

Setting the film in this fictional metropolis is a master-stroke on the parts of the film-makers because it allows them the freedom to step just outside reality, which is of course where all the best martial arts films exist. We don’t need to question why competitive kickboxing is so central to the criminal underworld. We don’t need to question how this many people could be killed without any law enforcement sniffing around (there is only one passing mention of the police in the entire not-quite-two-hours). We can just accept that this is the way things are in Hope City.

Kelso and Williams’ paths briefly cross when they both seek help from a dodgy back-street surgeon and they then journey separately to Metro City (shown using a neat little computer animation). Kelso’s fingers recover and he becomes the main attraction at a ‘pit’ run by the apparently relatively honest Markus (Jeremy Bailey). Another of Markus’ employees is Loader (Adam Hawkins), a ‘gentle giant’ who is kept out of the ring because if he is allowed to fight he never loses (not good for betting scams) and rarely lets his opponent leave the ring alive (not good generally).

Eventually, Williams and Kelso team up (somewhat warily) and head back to Hope City. Williams wants to take out Kincaid and his whole empire, Kelso just wants revenge on Taylor. Other than that, they have little in common. Loader tags along for the ride too. And the last twenty minutes or so is pretty much non-stop action as they kick, punch, throw and slap their way through Kincaid’s army of goons - including Taylor and Dylan.

It’s a simple story but it makes sense in terms of character motivation. The characters themselves, both major and minor, have personalities and the acting is generally good. None of it is outstandingly brilliant but none of it is embarrassingly awful either - which is unusual in itself. To be honest, none of the actors are ever expected to go outside of the emotions of ‘angry’ or ‘sarcastic’ but there is some choice dialogue and it is nicely delivered.

Still, it’s the fights we’re here to see and they really are something special. They strike the right balance between gritty and over-the-top. People get hurt, people get bloodied, in fact this is so gory in places it almost qualifies as a horror movie. But people also manage to stay alive and kicking (literally) long after any normal human would have been reduced to a quivering pulp on the verge of death. Which is what we look for in a good actioner. It’s what separates an ‘action movie’ from a violent drama.

The fight choreography is good, the acting and movement is good, the foley work is good and the editing is absolutely world class. Because it’s all in the editing. It’s the editor that makes a good fight sequence. You can have the best stuntmen in the world giving it their all but if the editor gets it wrong (or the director’s instructions to the editor are misjudged) you can end up with a mess. Actually, it’s amazing how often Hollywood gets this wrong; Quantum of Solace is a fine recent example. We have to clearly see what people are doing. We have to see sequences of two or three consecutive moves in a single shot. Yes, fast editing - cut-cut-cut! - can make a sequence exciting but in a fast-paced fight it has the opposite effect.

Anyone making low-budget action films - or, for that matter, big budget ones - should watch Left for Dead as an example of How It’s Done. It doesn’t take money (this whole movie was shot for about £8,000) and it doesn’t take the world’s greatest stuntmen. It just takes a director who knows what he’s doing, properly trained actors/stuntmen who know what they doing and an editor who understands the difference between a good actioner and a bad one.

Ironically, the weakest fights in the film are in that redundant opening sequence where far too many moments require somebody who is in a perfect position to shoot, stab or punch someone to stand still for a moment so that the intended victim can shoot, stab or punch them first. By the time that we reach the climactic showdown, that is long forgotten (together with the rather silly motorbike sequence). Kincaid’s goons are really, genuinely trying their damnedest to kill Williams, Kelso and Loader, who are doing their damnedest to incapacitate every human being in the building until they reach the boss-man himself.

Left for Dead is certainly too long but that’s about the only major criticism one can lay against it and opposed to that must be the fact that it is better written, better directed, better edited, better sound-mixed, better photographed and all-round just better than any other British martial arts films that I’ve ever seen. It raises the bar enormously. Yes, there have been some decent little movies and it’s true that the really bad shit like Intergalactic Combat is, fortunately, the exception. But Left for Dead just shows what can be done. The subgenre that is the British actioner is not limited, it’s not restricted, it can work.

Many of the cast and crew have worked with director Ross Boyask and producer Phil Hobden previously on films such as Fixing to Blow, Lone Wolf 1 and 2, fIXers (sic) and Pure Vengeance. Salvage and Hobden worked together as far back as Project: Assassin. John Rackham, director of Bloodmyth, has a small role as another mob boss and also provides narration which is so infrequently deployed as to be rendered not just ineffective but actually slightly annoying.

Cecily Fay appears briefly for one fight scene at the end in a bright blonde bob wig and is worth a paragraph to herself. A former international ballet star, her fascinatingly diverse CV includes motion capture work for a Narnia computer game, stunt-doubling characters in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and wearing a big foam costume in the title role of pre-school kids show JimJam and Sunny, together with three of the worst pieces of science fiction ever filmed in this country. That’s Ray Brady’s hilariously bad Intergalactic Combat, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (which had a budget about 10,000 times that of Brady’s film but was only marginally better) and non-broadcast wannabe-sitcom embarrassment Star Hyke. Anyone who is as big a Hitchhiker’s nerd as I used to be will be interested to learn that it was Fay who donned the TV series’ Marvin costume for its gag cameo in the Disney movie. Finally, and somewhat bizarrely, she was the 1996 European champion in the Indonesian martial art of Pencak Silat (the one that Gareth Evans is now making a film about).

Meanwhile, back at the film review:

Other cast members include Joey Ansah (The Bourne Ultimatum, Underground), Dean Alexandrou (who was in a terrific-looking Thai flick called Hanuman Klook Foon), Andy Taylor (Soul Searcher), Brendan Carr (who was in something called Jesus the Curry King!), Nic Main (who played a Roman soldier in both big budget epic Gladiator and low-budget distaff spoof Gladiatress), Thomas Rooke (RocknRolla) and Silencer/Insiders co-director Simon Wyndham. Steve Hayes created the title sequence and visual effects, make-up effects are credited to Mondo FX, and Pinda Dhanoya provided the original music. ‘First Strike Action Team’ are credited with the fight choreography. But the bulk of the credit for the film’s success must rest with director/cinematographer/editor Boyask whose judgement of both action and plot is spot on.

Left for Dead’ is one of those generic titles, like ‘Broken’, which has proved remarkably popular in recent years. The Inaccurate Movie Database lists seven films of this title since 2002 including a western directed by Albert Pyun, a Canadian horror feature starring Halloween’s Danielle Harris, a short, serious drama from 2005, a thriller from 2006, a biopic of an American Civil War soldier and an in-production indie horror.

The two-year odyssey that was the production of Left for Dead was documented in the feature-length Making Of 10,000 Cigarettes. Boyask, Hobden and many of the others involved went on to make Ten Dead Men, which I shall review shortly...

MJS rating: A
review originally posted 1st January 2009

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