Thursday 7 July 2011

Albino Alligator (1996)


“They don’t make ‘em like they used to.” We’ve all heard that one before. It tends to get thrown around by those of the older generation who find themselves at a loss with the current standard of film or music or whatever the subject happens to be. It’s understandable to a degree. People tend to regard the past with more fondness than the present. However, times change, and standards change. What was unacceptable before is acceptable now, and vice versa. The most commonly repeated complaint is that, in movies, there’s less emphasis now on character or story, and more emphasis on special effects and the onomatopoeic thrills of booms and bangs. Every now and then, though, someone will attempt to address this idea. They’ll try and make something that feels old-fashioned. A character piece, or something suitably low-key that special effects can’t enter into. Such was the attempt made by actor Kevin Spacey with his directorial debut of Albino Alligator.

While escaping from a foiled robbery attempt, three thieves - Dova (Matt Dillon), Milo (Gary Sinise) and Law (William Fichtner) - try to hide out from the police in a basement bar. When they find themselves surrounded, they take the few patrons of the bar hostage and try to figure out a plan.

Albino Alligator is the first script from Christian Forte and, frankly, it is a poor start to proceedings. The basic premise is simple enough to allow character to be the most important aspect of the film. It’s not about cops or thieves or hostages - it’s a morality play. Morality plays rest on the simple conceit of what one person is being forced to do against everything they know about themselves and what they know to be right. For this to work, you need strong characters… and Albino Alligator has little in the way of strong characters. People here aren’t people, but conveniences for plot. If they aren’t being dealt with directly by the scene, they are completely forgotten. There are some attempts to give a hint of background story to some, like Jack’s potential drinking problem or Dova’s relationship woes, but they don’t work because they exist only as throwaway lines that get no further attention or development. The drama of the whole is also severely compromised by the frequent attempts at humour, which come out of nowhere and then leave just as quickly. The script just simply is not up to the challenge of what is a good central concept.

Considering the genuine anticipation behind what would be Kevin Spacey’s first film as director, there was quite a lot of expectation for Albino Alligator. In concept, it’s a good choice. It’s mainly single set, a handful of actors, little in the way of chase sequences or explosions, a high-tension morality play. This is the kind of thing people should be starting with, where they can build their skills in simply creating tension, mood, tone. With a solid script behind it and some great actors, this could really be something. Spacey even made a wise move and called veteran director Sidney Lumet to get tips on how to create a greater sense of claustrophobic tension similar to Lumet’s excellent 12 Angry Men. Sadly, it falls short of its intended target by some way. With exception of a single overhead shot of a car crash near the beginning, there is little in the way of real style or dramatic weight. Also, the camerawork is never still long enough to build tension. Any tips that Lumet may have given Spacey must have gone unheeded for some reason, because there is simply no sense of claustrophobia anywhere. The space feels empty, the frame feels empty. People have room to walk around, get away from each other. That Spacey allowed the film to occasionally leave the bar is an even more serious misstep. By leaving the bar for ham-fisted attempts at humour or to give information that is pretty meaningless, it gives the audience the chance to catch their breath. Spacey should be given some credit for the fact that it doesn’t feel stagey, which could have happened and he was probably quite conscious of, but that doesn’t really make up for things.

The cast, filled with some superb talent, are wasted or cast adrift with a rather disturbing frequency. Matt Dillon is the character we spend most time with, and Dova is of the sort that’s smart enough to know that he needs a plan, just not smart enough to think of one. Dillon is a little unsteady in the beginning, and does struggle with the attempts at humour, but does eventually find his feet. Gary Sinise does solid work, but he spends some of the film unconscious, so we don’t get much of him. William Fichtner is the strongest actor on show, completely becoming the kind of barely contained psychopath that serves to make up around 80% of the movie’s tension. The scene where he demands that Faye Dunaway take out a cigarette and put in his mouth is really imposing and creepy, and he's easily the most physical presence in the film. Faye Dunaway herself doesn’t come off too well. She has moments where she hits her stride wonderfully, but for the most part struggles to find the tone of the piece and so seems a little inconsistent. Pretty much everyone else is criminally wasted and underused, from Viggo Mortensen’s Quiet Guy Drinking Off-screen to John Spencer’s Slightly Less Quiet Guy Drinking Off-screen to Joe Mantegna’s Cop Standing Outside A Lot. Mantegna tries to give a little depth here and there, and Mortensen tries to give something too, but Spencer is almost completely ignored, which is shocking. They just don’t know what to do with him.

As it is, Albino Alligator is a thoroughly wasted opportunity. The cast try their best, with varying degrees of success, but the script is wrought with problems and the direction is unsteady and with little tonal consistency. The fact that there is a conscious attempt to make things feel old-fashioned serves to both cheapen the memory of the old stuff and cripple the credibility of this film. This could have been something of real simmering tension, atmosphere and moral ambiguity, but it simply doesn’t hold up.

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