Dialled-down Al saves the day
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.