Sunday, May 25, 2014

THE FIRM: Blu-ray (Warner Brothers 2009) Twilight Time

Nick Love’s The Firm (2009) is a remake of Alan Clarke’s 1989 knockout about football hooliganism – still regarded in Britain as one of the best television movies ever made; also a curiously dower homage to, and condemnation of Maggie Thatcher’s 1980’s (will the iron lady ever cease to be the liberal left’s most desirable punching bag?); finally, something of a tragic eye-opener about the implosion of blindsided idol worship; particularly when the object of its impressionable esteem – soccer goon, Bex (Paul Anderson) proves unworthy of such hasty adolescent devotion.  Where Clarke’s original and Love’s remake differ is in the impetus propelling the story. Clarke’s movie is centered on the unscrupulous Bex (played with razorback precision in the 1989 film by Gary Oldman). The remake takes on a refreshing challenge; viewed from the eye line of a boy aspiring to manhood without adequate role models. Dom (Calum MacNab) is a wannabe somebody (anybody!) desperate to rise above what he misperceives as his worthless lower middle class family life. Dom just wants to fit in with the ‘in crowd’.
Alas, those in the know are a testosterone-driven and egocentric lot, scrounging for their own piece of the proverbial (though in this case, very rancid and dwindling) pie. Within the context of this almost exclusively male-dominated purview, and despite ‘the firm’s’ butch ball-bashing façade – somewhat dandified by Bex’s affinity for snazzy tracksuits and gaudy Adidas runners (none of which he pays for), there is an undeniable homoerotic subtext permeating The Firm that cannot be ignored; from Dom’s covetous doe-eyed gazes of Bex – astutely picked up by Snowy (Ritchie Campbell) as ‘infatuation’ and further agitated and exposed to the group at large by Bex’s second in command; the ruthless and aptly named, Trigger (Doug Allen), to Bex’s increasing disassociation from his wife, Suzie (Joanne Matthews) and their young son, The Firm is all about misguided male bonding. Alas, the bro-mance is all one-sided; Dom in love with Bex (or, at least, the idea of him) and Bex much too self-involved to care; though, arguably, here too the guy has major issues. After all, no one who hates as much as he does can respect himself altogether.
At the start, Bex and his brethren crudely regard poor old Dom and his best friend, Terry (Billy Seymour) as ‘dry lunch’. The initial confrontation these boys have with Bex inside a nightclub results in Terry getting his nose broken in a head-butt. Truth be told, Dom will never make his bones with these vial reprobates, although this reality does not sink in or dissuade him from his attempts to procure the fantasy by becoming Bex’s point man, and thus something of his own big man on campus – at least inside his own head. Self-delusion is very big in The Firm; something of an insidious malaise warping all individual perspective for any life outside its core. Eventually, Dom does come to his senses; a stunning about face leading to an even more momentous decision: that he doesn’t really need or desire the firm’s respect to get along and respect himself. After all, it isn’t worth having, primarily because it doesn’t last. You’re only as good as the last guy you sent into a face plant against the pavement.
However, at the beginning of this bro-mantic tragedy, Dom is painfully transparent in his desperation to join Bex’s motley crew of baseball bat and box-cutter wielding thugs. The Firm is about boys aspiring to be men and young men still uncertain in their own level of maturity within this skewed social structure that has apparently marginalizes them at every chance. Without the firm’s solidarity, Bex really doesn’t have much going for him. Suzie is his trophy wife at best, not above condemning her husband as a “stupid child” – and rightfully so, after their infant son inadvertently does some serious damage to himself with Bex’s box cutter. Indeed, Bex’s entire existence revolves around a single-minded revenge scenario against another armchair warrior from a rival firm; Yeti (Daniel Mays) who has even less social skills outside his insular domain. Although The Firm is undeniably about clashes between these rabid soccer (football) fans, the actual game is never shown. After all, it really isn’t the point of this story; mano-a-mano confrontations between the various firms to settle old scores and open new wounds, is.
To what purpose? Hmmm. Much has been made of the emasculating effect Margaret Thatcher’s reign had on middle-class men throughout the 1980’s. It seems odd, to downright foolhardy and irresponsible to blame one gal for an entire generation of blokes suffering simultaneous brain and testicular shrinkage; even if the lady in question had guts of steel and was, in fact, the country’s Prime Minister. Still, England’s menfolk have never had a problem being governed by a Queen. So what gives? And Thatcher, despite her perceived flaws as a leader, ought not be held accountable for the steep decline in societal mores already well under way by the time she assumed control of the government.  Was Margaret Thatcher perfect or perfectly dreadful? Hmmm, again. Did she try her best? Debatable, though her reputation will likely always sustain the taint of revisionist historian’s hard knocks made by post-Thatcher political pundits who knew nothing of the lady or even the times in which she governed, but can still formulate unfavorable opinions with a degree of pomposity reconstituted as fact. But I digress. 
At the crux of his movie, director Nick Love gives us an intriguing parallel between the brutish Bex and his puppy-dog protégé, Dom. Neither is satisfied with his lot in life; Bex selling swampland condos to the socially affluent while barely able to contain his contempt for these prospective buyers. Dom is his counterpoint, seeing no other way to rise like cream (or perhaps vermin) up and out of the Ferrier Estates – a state-sanctioned ghetto of dystopian proportions where his own father, Bob (Eddie Webber) toils. It is one of the movie’s self-inflicted ironies Dom cannot see who the real man of this piece is; dear old dad! 
Despite Bob’s paunchy physical decline and rather gruff exterior, he really does everything within his means – and then some – to help Dom achieve his semi-successful assimilation into Bex’s underworld – in spite of his own misgivings that the boy is headed down the wrong life path. One can sincerely argue Bob isn’t doing Dom any favors by shelling out money for expensive trainers and tracksuits, or footing his bills to go clubbing with the firm until all hours of the night.  But like most sincere parents – who take the responsibility of parenting seriously – Bob and Dom’s mother, Shel (Camille Coduri) attempt to straddle the ever-widening chasm between monocratic authority and establishing a two-way friendship with their offspring.  
By contrast, the firm is a far more oppressive and defeatist influence on Dom’s gullibility; forcing him to forsake friends and family, indulge in some adrenaline-pumping skirmishes with rival gangs, while introducing him to lawless pursuits like train-jumping and shoplifting.  Thankfully, Dom’s mama didn’t raise a fool. A dissatisfied loner, perhaps, but clearly a guy with a better head on his shoulders than even he first allows himself the luxury to exercise to his own – and much more positive – advantage. Dom’s a better man as a pliable schoolboy than Bex is as a guy who ought to – and presumably does - know better. Corrupting the next generation satisfies Bex’s overweening ego. But eventually, even he realizes the futility of his own life’s pursuits; ironically at the exact moment when death is near.   
Al Ashton’s screenplay opens with these two lives running a parallel course destined to intersect; Dom and Terry smoking fags up on the balcony of their tenement and shouting obscenities to passersby who have no compunction in telling these little sods off. It’s a fruitless, stupid way to pass the time and it’s begun to bore Dom. Begging Bob for a bit of lolly to go clubbing, Dom and Terry have their first run in with Bex, who cuts to the head of the entrance line with Suzie in tow and is given a pass by the bouncer. Inside the club, Terry attempts some woefully awkward flirtations with the single gals before deciding he can steal Suzie away from Bex; this, of course, without first knowing who he is about to mess with or that Suzie is actually Bex’s wife. Bex isn’t particularly interested in starting Word War III with this brash kid. But Terry persists in making a damn nuisance of himself; resulting in a quick and unanticipated head butt that leaves him woozy, bloody, and, with a broken nose.
A short while later, Dom discovers who Bex is: something of a minor legend in his own time and, in fact, a guy who could ostensibly make both their lives a living hell. To quash a rumor that Dom and Terry are on Bex’s (s)hit list, Dom suggests they make a public apology at the Lord Nelson – a local watering hole where Bex and his crew meet nightly. Dom’s genuineness goes a long way to impress Bex. In point of fact, the rumors were greatly exaggerated. Bex had no further interests in seeing either Dom or Terry come to harm. Relieved, Dom presses his luck the next afternoon by going to see Bex at his legitimate place of work; a local real estate office.
The usually track-suited Bex looks rather benign in his office duds, but he quickly escorts Dom from the premises.  Bex encourages Dom to meet up later for a soccer engagement, instructing him to get a descent pair of trainers. Bob at first denies his son any advance on his salary. “When are you going to get it through your head that you only get paid when you work?” he asks Dom. You could hardly call what Dom does – handing a few pieces of plywood to his old man on various construction sites – as real work. Nevertheless, Dom’s doleful pleas result in Bob and Shel taking him to the local sporting goods shop, and sucking it up for a pair of expensive Adidas Trimm Trab shoes and a Fila track suit.
The rest of Bex’s firm is unimpressed with Dom as his choice for a replacement goalie. However, when Dom manages to save a vital penalty kick, the firm begins to regard him – if not entirely, as one of their own – then, decidedly as a bright newcomer well on his way to coming up through the ranks. One of Bex’s crew, Jay (Joe Jackson) gets Dom involved in his regular five finger discount patrols of the local sporting goods store; also, invited on a trip to Portsmouth with the firm; Bex and his boys riding the rails without tickets and encouraging the slovenly ticket inspector (Frank Scantori) to overlook their cheek in exchange for a beer – which he accepts. Life under the protective wing of the firm is alright – or so it would seem. These men are a community and a force unto themselves. They command attention and respect; also protection from Yeti’s rival Millwall and Portsmouth firms; the venom exposed between these organizations drawing police to the scene. Dom is struck by a rival member, but manages to stay on his feet and hit back. Is he learning how to become a man or merely mastering the art of this goon squad as just another one of its stooges?
It all seems quaintly glamorous to Dom, who coaxes Bob and Shel to buy him a fairly expensive Ellesse tracksuit identical to the one Bex wears. Terry is unimpressed by Dom’s newfound connections and, in fact, the two old chums begin to drift apart. Bob also becomes concerned his son is hooking up with the wrong influences; particularly after Bex flashes some cash around in his presence and makes several condescending inquiries about Bob coming to do some handyman work for him. Bob politely refuses, citing prior commitments. Dom is embarrassed by his father’s rejection of Bex as one of his ‘new mates’. 
Most in the firm, including Snowy and Jay approve of Dom as something of their mascot; particularly after Dom refuses to flinch away from Bex’s suggestion to having the firm’s insignia carved into his forearm with a box cutter. The rest of the firm shows Dom their forearms first. All appear to have the same symbol engraved into their flesh.  So, Dom submits to Bex, who takes a particularly fiendish delight in drawing blood from a minor scratch with his pocket knife. However, when the rest of the firm suddenly licks their own forearms, revealing the etchings to have been inked in pen - not blood - Dom realizes the joke is on him. Nevertheless, in agreeing to this proposed desecration of his own flesh he has shown admirable bravery. Everyone, except Trigger is impressed. After Trigger calls Dom out as nothing more than a gutless idol worshiper, Bex tells Dom how to win Trigger’s respect; by standing up to his insults and combating them with a few of his own. Dom does just that and Trigger’s stance against him softens. Although he still isn’t ready to give the kid a fair shake, Dom’s ballsy ultimatum has mildly amused him.
Dom is set up by Bex at the Crystal Palace with Justine (Ebony Gilbert), a prostitute who helps Dom lose his cherry. It’s the last stop on Dom’s tour of duty to becoming a full-fledged member of Bex’s firm. Alas, Millwall’s rival gang launches a surprise assault. Bex’s firm sustains some humiliating losses. In response, Bex ambushes various members of Millwall’s firm, trashing their cars and brutally pummeling the men with a baseball bat, his fists and feet as Dom looks on; suddenly realizing the level of commitment he will be required to give as a member in good standing.  Bex, Dom and the rest of his inner circle return home from this confrontation, pumped full of self-importance, only to quickly discover Yeti has already exacted his revenge by trashing their cars. Bex is incensed, electing to ante up the level of violence in an all-out war that will bring Millwall to its knees.
Bex gets Dom to take his father’s van for a drive over to Snowy’s house. But by now, Snowy – like many others in the firm – has sincerely begun to doubt Bex’s bloodthirsty need for retribution. After all, where will it end? Bex disavows Snowy for his reluctance to partake in his latest plan of attack against Yeti. At the meeting just prior to Bex’s assault on Millwall, Dom expresses similar concerns. It’s suicide to proceed. Enraged by Dom’s cheek – presumably because it undermines his credibility as the leader of this firm – Bex grabs Dom around the throat, bullying him into partaking in the confrontation. The firm makes their enforced march from the Lord Nelson to London Bridge’s tube station where they ambush Yeti and his followers. Bex overpowers Yeti, beating him nearly senseless with a baseball bat and savagely – and repeatedly – kicking him in the head as he lies on the tile floor. Dom is repulsed by this particularly bloody skirmish; unable to do anything but observe it all from a distance as Yeti recovers from his assault and sticks his own box cutter into Bex’s belly: a fatal wound.  
The police arrive at Bex’s home in the middle of the night to inform Suzie her husband is dead. Not long thereafter, Dom puts on the same red tracksuit that was Bex’s signature and makes his way to the Lord Nelson, observing through its porthole window a scene of uncharacteristic revelry with Trigger now holding court and dominion over the firm. The boys have moved on without even mourning Bex’s loss. What was it all for? Instead of entering the pub to make his inquiries, Dom joins Terry, who is waiting for him just around the corner. The two chums rekindle their friendship and walk off together; Dom putting the firm behind him for good.
In its denouement, The Firm is almost Shakespearean; feeding off such time-honored precepts as ‘ambition knows no king’ and ‘pride cometh before the fall’. What comes afterward – at least for our pubescent hero – is faintly reminiscent of the protagonist’s narrow escape from Dante’s Inferno. There’s a very fascistic slant to director Nick Love’s approach to the firm itself; Bex’s Hitlerian rule resulting in devastating consequences, even as the firm’s public battles with Yeti lead Bex from a communal crusade against the enemy into a more private war from which there can be no exodus - or lasting peace, for that matter. It’s not a perfect conclusion, primarily because Al Ashton’s screenplay loses its central focus about midway through, relying on some unprincipled clichés to propel the story onto its third act finale.
We lose all respect for Bex at around the same time Dom comes to his senses about belonging to the firm. But the character devolves into something of a hapless, leering gargoyle with virtually no redeemable qualities; making Bex’s penultimate murder something of a relief and expectation long before the actual showdown commences; the movie’s abrupt postscript imbedded in its soundtrack; serenading us with a verse and chorus of Soft Cell’s 80’s pop hit, Tainted Love“once I ran to you…now, I run from you.” We get it, as does Dom. The age of heroes is dead and those attempting its resurrection in the modern era are doomed to badly mangle the affair by a show of force rather than displaying benevolence and a guiding hand. Leadership comes in many forms. The Firm’s hits like a sledgehammer, but goes out with a whimper instead of a bang; its’ apocryphal message of ‘hey kids, don’t try this at home’ serving more as a prophylactic addendum to this way of life, masquerading as fanatical devotion to the sport of soccer.
Still, there are moments to admire, mostly in Calum MacNab’s richly varied performance as the young man who starts out as a pliable popinjay but who weathers his trial by fire, emerging ever more the man than his deified idol could ever hope to become. And director Nick Love’s shrewd decision to refocus this remake on Dom, rather than Bex, effectively pulls the entire enterprise out of the direct line of fire for criticism or comparison to Alan Clarke’s 1989 original. This ‘Firm’ is its own entity; solidly crafted and with brass balls to boot. It doesn’t really surpass or eclipse the memory of Clarke’s TV movie; but it does provide a refreshingly different perspective on a story and characters already well known to anyone living in the U.K.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray via an alliance with Warner Bros. (is this even possible?!?) is a winner. In hi-def, The Firm sparkles. We get a robust anamorphic transfer, perfectly supporting Matt Gray’s use of deep focus cinematography. Colors are rich and fully saturated. Flesh tones are accurate. Contrast is bang on. Film grain looks very natural. In short, there’s virtually nothing to complain about. This is an A-1 reference quality effort. I’m not exactly certain how TT got its hot little hands on this catalogue title. The U.K. release is from Warner Home Video; the company having its own virtually ironclad aversion to licensing ANY of its catalog to rival competing interests.
This disc’s 5.1 DTS is another revelation; aggressively spread across all channels, with exceptional clarity. Music cues from 80’s pop standards resonate with a revitalized power and heavy bass; the venal jeers from Bex and his crew, echoing with a resilient thunder. Dialogue is very crisp, although I confess I had to keep pausing the film and going back to pick up on its heavy slang dominating these decidedly juicy and frequently crass exchanges.  Extras include TT’s usual isolated score, an audio commentary from director Nick Love, a short – but mostly informative ‘making of’, deleted and alternate scenes, and, a breakdown of how Love and Gray staged the movie’s fight sequences; plus, the original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: good solid work done by all concerned. Definitely one to add to your shelf.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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