Friday, October 5, 2012

Gritty Brits: "Night Dragon" (1998)

This rough and tumble thriller would be a perfect little classic if not for an ineptly awful beginning, and hard to understand end.

Liz (Imogen Church) works for mobster Hansen (Alan Ford). Hansen saved Liz's life once, and she repays him by doing some dirty work along with slightly psycho Christian (Scott Thomas) and smoothly psycho Beckett (James Fisher). Liz pretends to fall in love with lawyer Millie (Annette Kellow), who is on the team prosecuting Hansen. Liz finds her feelings for Millie turn real, and isn't in on the plot by Christian and Beckett to get the location of a secret witness out of Millie, one way or another. Millie is bound with barbed wire, given a mysterious drug called 'Night Dragon' (the second dose will be deadly), and Liz finds herself trying to both save Millie's life while still trying to repay her debt to Hansen.

The beginning of the film makes no sense. The film is British, so it takes a bit to get used to the heavy accents, but the editing is so off, I had no clue what was going on until finally getting a grasp of a story about ten or fifteen minutes in (which is deadly in a film that runs just over an hour). Once we get the back story on Liz, however, co-writer/director Tim Biddiscombe and co-writer Drew Cullingham deliver an ultra-violent, messy little thriller.

While a drawback to the short running time means that the action comes at the expense of character development, the action here is really good. The film was done on the cheap, but the gory makeup effects are amazing, and the fight sequences are simple but professionally done. Biddiscombe turns the few interior sets like Millie's kitchen and bathroom, into claustrophobic torture chambers, with both locations the settings for fistfights, stabbings, and shootings. Think of a film like "Extremities," which was a theatrical play first, and you get a sense of how well Biddiscombe uses his locations.

The cast is first-rate. While we have seen the mobster characters before, Ford, Fisher, and Thomas are fantastic. Fisher's calm demeanor and Thomas' screwball murderlust play nicely off of each other. Church is somehow sympathetic as Liz, and Church lets us sense her feelings for Millie without coming out and saying it. It helps that she is incredibly sexy, a fact not lost on the henchmen or Millie. Kellow scores as Millie, being angry at just the right time, and making the most of a character who spends the majority of her screen time sitting on the floor of a bathroom, hands tied behind her back and tears of blood flowing down her cheeks.

The final twist ending would also have played better if the film makers didn't get all arty with the sound design. It feels tacked on, and while effective, I still had to rewind it and watch it a couple of times to see exactly what had happened. Rob Palmer's musical score is dynamite, and the song choices are great. The film was shot on video, but the sound is understandable, and it seems like every punch, kick, and stab have their own memorable sound effect.

"Night Dragon" is a mean, gritty little film, nicely executed. It stands as an excellent example of microbudget film making, not letting its financial shortcomings get in the way of telling their story. If not for the first few and last few minutes, it would be a new crime classic. (* * * *) out of five stars.