Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Prodigy (2005)

Warning: there will be spoilers

His boss sends criminal enforcer Truman (Holt Boggs) to find the guy who kidnapped the boss’s favourite nephew. Well, most of the nephew, really, for he left an eye as well as a cryptic scrawled message behind. Some old-fashioned detective work suggests the kidnapper is a professional killer so legendary, he’s basically the bogeyman of the underworld. The killer myth likes to work under the moniker of Claude Rains, as befitting a man who has never been seen (by anyone he didn’t kill). That doesn’t explain what Rains wants with the nephew, though, for there doesn’t seem to be any connection between him Truman’s boss at all.

Indeed, it will turn out that Rains is interested in Truman himself, and that Truman has already met him during a violent incident that ended with a warehouse full of dead people, with the first among the handful of people Truman is close to one of the corpses there.

William Kaufman’s The Prodigy is that very rare thing, a locally produced direct-to-DVD action movie with a brain that completely transcends most of its limitations.

Kaufman has gone on to the (probably) greener pastures of regular direct-to-DVD action by now, and is certainly one of the good directors working in that world of Lundgren “starring” roles which take up ten minutes of running time and Cuba Gooding Jr. earning his rent money like a trouper. The Prodigy, though, isn’t merely a decent film made under difficult circumstances, it is a rather special film. One that unites action movie tropes with modern serial killer plot elements and a bit of post-Tarantino crime film in a way that feels organic and logical, an action film with only a handful of action sequences that still doesn’t contain filler, and just an all-around fine movie that often makes clever use of its production constraints.

Case in point is how the first and the last big action set pieces both take place in the same warehouse. This sort of thing is usually the kiss of death for excitement in an action film but Kaufman explicitly has the first and the last acts of violence in the film mirroring each other, the end logically taking place where things started, and what should look lazy or cheap suddenly feels consequential and meaningful.

Kaufman shows himself particularly adept at realizing genre standards convincingly. The Prodigy certainly isn’t the first film containing a serial killer (which Rains in effect is) wanting to turn his adversary into a mirror image of himself by cutting all his ties to humanity, for example, but the plotting is intricate enough and the characterisations (even that of the killer, a guy we never really meet as a person) so strong, the old hat becomes interesting and riveting again.

The film’s storytelling in general is so strong, the way the film tells its tale can even surprise – and most certainly does excite – the more jaded viewer of cheap genre movies. After nearly thirty years of the the whole mythical serial killer thing I have to admit I am somewhat over the trope, finding myself rolling my eyes at the usual Nietzsche quote (not to be found here, happily) and all that comes with it. Nonetheless, the way the old chestnut flows in Kaufman’s film turned it exciting for me again, suggesting that a careful script containing just the right amount of tiny twists to a formula can still go a long way even with the most tired of ideas.

Holt Boggs’s (who also co-wrote the script) performance as Truman is another point in the film’s favour, keeping the guy sympathetic enough to care about what happens to him but never suggesting that he’s just a misunderstood nice guy who just happens to murder people quite adeptly. There’s clearly something missing in Truman, and finding out how much exactly is part of the point of the film.

Kaufman’s direction is very effective, working as well in tightly edited action scenes as in the detective bits, when we are listening to the gangsters’ urban myths about Rains, or when we watch Truman at home with his girlfriend. Unlike a lot of action directors, Kaufman seems quite at home in scenes where nobody gets killed, treating verbal character interaction with the same care he uses for shoot-outs, instead of treating the talking as shit to just get over with to get back to the killing. Kaufman has a careful eye for the mood of any given scene, and seems to approach them all with a clear idea of their respective meaning in the film as a whole.

And that’s really the best thing about The Prodigy: this is not just an excellent low budget action flick, but an excellent low budget action flick that actually has a story to tell.

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