Di­alled-down Al saves the day

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM REVIEWS - DON­ALD CLARKE TARA BRADY

DANNY COLLINS Di­rected by Dan Fo­gel­man. Star­ring Al Pa­cino, An­nette Ben­ing, Bobby Can­navale, Jen­nifer Gar­ner, Christo­pher Plummer, Kata­rina Cas. 15A cert, gen re­lease, 106 min The first thing one asks when ap­proach­ing any Al Pa­cino project is whether the direc­tor has man­aged to sit upon the great man. Al still has it in him, but, far too of­ten, he lets us down by wav­ing his arms and bel­low­ing like a drunk seek­ing to at­tract at­ten­tion while drown­ing.

We have ex­cel­lent news. This might be the best Pa­cino per­for­mance in close to 20 years. It’s such a touch­ing turn that – as­sisted by strong sup­port from An­nette Ben­ing and Bobby Can­navale – it saves a sen­ti­men­tal project from ter­mi­nal mawk­ish­ness.

We begin in Al­most Fa­mous ter­ri­tory with a jour­nal­ist (Nick Of­fer­man) in­ter­view­ing a young singer-song­writer in the early 1970s. The up-and-com­ing star, a de­clared fan of John Len­non, won­ders if any fu­ture suc­cess may ham­per his cre­ativ­ity.

We zoom for­ward to the present day and learn the an­swer. Now played by a spray-tanned Pa­cino, Danny Collins has turned into a crowd-pleas­ing MOR mon­ster. Movies in­vari­ably have dif­fi­cul­ties in­vent­ing rock stars and Is there an award for Most Ono­matopoeic Movie Killing Spree? If so, we have a win­ner. It’s im­pos­si­ble not to think of Mel Gibson’s very fine run­ning-man pic­ture Apoca­lypto while watch­ing pre-colo­nial war­ring Maoris go at one an­other with sticks and blades: pic­ture an armed and danger­ous haka. But there is a good deal more squelch­ing in The Dead Lands.

The may­hem be­gins when blood­thirsty hot­head Wirepa (New Zealand TV star Te Kohe Tuhaka) ar­rives in a neigh­bour­ing vil­lage cit­ing his un­buried an­ces­tors as an ex­cuse to Dan Fo­gel­man’s di­rec­to­rial de­but is no ex­cep­tion. What sort of per­former is Danny Collins? There is cer­tainly some­thing of Neil Di­a­mond about him (a com­par­i­son pressed home when he sets out on a low-key come­back LP), but that singer was never any­thing less than a song­writer of ge­nius.

Any­way, Danny sees the light when his manager (an­other fine turn from Christo­pher Plummer) lo­cates a long-lost let­ter from Len­non of­fer­ing char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally blunt ad­vice.

That part of the script springs from a true story con­cern­ing English folk singer Steve Til­ston. The body of the piece is, how­ever, pure Hol­ly­wood wish ful­fil­ment. In ac­ci­den­tal de­clare war. Wirepa and his mur­der­ous, mo­hawked posse have geno­cide in mind: “I will fill your daugh­ter’s uterus with dirt,” he warns.

Only the un­ex­pe­ri­enced young­ster Hongi (James Rolle­ston) es­capes the en­su­ing car­nage. He is not, alas, any kind of war­rior: his own dead grand­mother laughs from be­yond the grave – one of the film’s many spirit world ex­cur­sions – when he vows to avenge his mur­dered rel­a­tives.

Not to be de­terred, Hongi jour­neys into the ghostly ter­rain in or­der to re­cruit the homage to I’m Alan Partridge, Collins ditches his twen­tysome­thing fi­ancée and – to the ac­com­pa­ni­ment of more than suf­fi­cient Len­non tunes -checks into an or­di­nary New Jer­sey ho­tel not far from the or­di­nary home of his or­di­nary es­tranged son Tom (Can­navale). In the evenings, he at­tempts to se­duce the ho­tel manager, who, played by Ben­ing, a mere 18 years Pa­cino’s ju­nior, counts as more suit­able ro­man­tic ma­te­rial in the movie world.

Tom is fu­ri­ous: does Collins re­ally ex­pect to just swan in here, cure their prob­lems and trig­ger the closing vi­o­lins? Well, pretty much.

Pa­cino makes it work. His

Squelch: Te Kohe Tuhaka

mon­strous can­ni­bal who is said to live there. More squelch­ing fol­lows.

The Dead Lands is not per­haps the nu­anced film we

Al Pa­cino in Danny Collins

voice cracked and break­ing, his skin creased be­neath the paint, the vet­eran still swag­gers, but, in more vul­ner­a­ble mo­ments, there is a quiet sad­ness to him that sug­gests Char­lie Chap­lin’s de­cayed clown in Lime­light. Yes, we used the word “quiet”. We sense an ac­tor re­dis­cov­er­ing the less fren­zied en­er­gies that com­ple­mented his rel­a­tively rare fu­ries when a young man.

Rather poignantly, some­thing sim­i­lar is also hap­pen­ing to Danny. The au­di­ences seem scep­ti­cal when he un­veils his new, less bom­bas­tic ma­te­rial. In con­trast, Pa­cino’s true fans will savour the ac­tor’s own di­alling down. A very pleas­ant sur­prise. were ex­pect­ing from direc­tor Toa Fraser, whose last two pic­tures were the whim­si­cal Dean Span­ley (2008) and Giselle (2013) with the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

But there’s at least as much chore­og­ra­phy re­quired for his new movie’s ex­cel­lent hand-to-hand, hack-‘em-up con­flicts. We’re told this is the first film to fea­ture Mau rakau, a tra­di­tional Maori mar­tial-art util­is­ing a sharp, pad­dle-shaped weapon. This beau­ti­fully shot, brightly per­formed ac­tioner serves that an­cient dis­ci­pline well.

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