Now on DVD
(Two New Titles Starring Eric Roberts)
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Two brand new titles featuring Runaway Train's Oscar nominated actor Eric Roberts made their DVD premiere last week from Vivendi Entertainment. Since The Butcher's companion screener that shipped alongside it-- One Way which stars Til Schweiger (one of the main ensemble performers of Quentin Tarantino's upcoming World War II epic Inglorious Basterds)-- has been given more coverage already including a larger theatrical release and boasts a bigger level of production polish, I opted to begin July's impromptu Eric Roberts' film festival with the lesser known Butcher.
Having been chosen as the Official Selection at both Cinema City International Film Festival and Ft. Lauderdale International Film Festival following its 2007 shoot-- this flawed yet impressively made low-budget work captured on celluloid in under a month benefits immeasurably from the diverse talents of its writer/director Jesse V. Johnson.
Simply put, he boasts an incredible resume of connect-the-dots to some of the industry's top filmmakers. Whether it was in his work as a stuntman, stunt coordinator or stunt technical adviser on pictures like Total Recall, War of the Worlds, Charlie's Angels, Mission: Impossible III and Beowulf or as a second unit director or assistant director on The Shawshank Redemption or various spinoffs in the The Young Indiana Jones series-- while Johnson still struggles as a writer of dialogue in finding a balance between his characters, he disguises all of the flaws of budget and limited time and resources with awesome stunts and crisp cinematographic precision.
Essentially it's a B movie that is striving for the same vintage Warner Brothers noir feel from the '40s about a bad man who wants to do good. And in doing so, The Butcher resides squarely in the familiar terrain of gangsters, guns and gambling as Eric Roberts is cast as the top-notch but past-his-prime hitman Merle Hench whose horrific body count he's left over the decades working for organized crime boss Murdoch (Robert Davi) is nothing compared to the debts he's accumulated as a man who never knows how to turn down a tip on a horse, fold a hand, or walk away from what someone swears is a sure thing.
Nicknamed "The Butcher" for reasons that aren't entirely clear until the conclusion of the film since the man's weapon of choice is the gun and Roberts and company fire and fetish about firepower so much throughout The Butcher at times the movie could double for an NRA ad-- when Davi's Murdoch urges Merle to begin considering retirement, he realizes he'd have absolutely no way to support himself, not to mention the beautiful waitress Jackie (Irina Björklund) he's always flirtatiously inviting to run away with him.
However, when he realizes that he's been set up by those closest to him to be left for dead as a fall guy in a strip club robbery, Merle finally hits the jackpot... at least temporarily when he leaves the club alive with millions and invites Jackie (this time without a trace of irony or humor) to give up the apron and get the hell out of Dodge. To his shock and our amazement, she agrees-- rationalizing the move by saying that if she'd turned Merle down, it's a decision she would've regretted the rest of her life but they're not even a few feet outside before Jackie realizes that he's "The Butcher" for a reason as he must return to go remove a witness who's seen them together.
And for her turn in the male dominated work, special acknowledgment should be given to Irina Björklund for her quiet bravery and believability throughout, even when the end threatens to be a bit cliched. However, for the interim of the adventure-- Jackie makes a good partner to Merle even though nothing in Merle's plan is well-thought out. In fact, there's some pretty annoying gaps in logic as well in his actions as we question just how dense he'd have to be to keep driving around in an instantly recognizable, identifiable, originally restored, mint condition classic American automobile (probably the most expensive item in the film's budget) when they take to the lam and as Roberts decides to get his revenge.
While once again, the great Robert Davi is wasted by another tough-guy-for-hire stereotypical role-- Johnson at least tries to give him some long monologues. To this end, there are a few standouts including one that's used in a final showdown involving playing cards no less for metaphorical importance between him and Roberts near the end that would've worked better on stage. Yet as beautiful as they are, they don't match the rest of the script's tone in the least and drive the narrative to a screeching halt as the film itself takes a good long hour to get itself into gear in a way that gets the viewer in the car along with Roberts' Merle.
However, to hide the flaws, Johnson's mastery is commendable from the start as The Butcher's self-important philosophizing is drowned out by Marcello De Francisci's stunning score the alternates between cool jazz to soulful melancholy strings to a pulsating force that moves us along with our hero (or more appropriately antihero). Likewise, I can't say enough about what I'm only assuming was his vast preparation and most likely storyboarded difficult action sequences including stunts that involve so much gunfire and extras, it could've not only been dangerous but also showed its budget right there with lackluster effects.
Moreover, in a few key action moments, I was so impressed by what the filmmaker did with the fast-paced shoot that I knew right then and there that he had to have had the background he did. And this is also on display in some beautiful cinematography and intriguing camera choices like using what appears to be a sepia tone for a flashback sequence along with employing either a different lens or camera to play with the distortion and separate two different time periods or adjust the number of frames per second. Using little tricks this along with cinematographer Robert Hayes and editor Ken Blackwell helped ensure that the film doesn't fall easily into the look of the direct-to-disc trap.
Still, this being said-- from a narrative standpoint-- it's definitely not in the same league of most modern crime chamber pieces such as Paul Thomas Anderson's Hard Eight or John Dahl's You Kill Me.
And again, with the main focus being on the guns as well as Roberts' dialogue consisting too much on cliches and cheesy endearments like "dollface" when speaking to Jackie, I predict that Johnson will only improve as he continues working on his writing skills. Still, technically speaking from a production standpoint, The Butcher looks impressive enough to appear to be an A movie complete with convincing portrayals by those trying to do more with their roles than what's written on the page, although you realize that when it takes a good hour for you to become invested in the plot and the philosophizing and dialogue grows wearisome, unfortunately it's still a B that like Merle is gambling on the chance that viewers will feel it's worth the risk.
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