Starring Bryan Brown, Toni Colette, John Goodman, Sam Neill, Sam Worthington, Kestie Morassi, William McInnes, Felix Williamson.
Barry Ryan (Bryan Brown) is a Sydney crime boss who has a profitable racket robbing illegal casinos of their poker-machine revenue. He has the cops and a senator in his pocket, a no-nonsense wife Sharon (Toni Colette), a young mistress Margaret (Kestie Morassi) who is a barmaid at one of his clubs, and a young nephew Darcy (Sam Worthington) just home from Vietnam. Wanting a slice of the business, two Chicago Mafia men, Tony (John Goodman) and Sal (Felix Williams) arrive with the prototype of a new type of slot machine and an offer to buy Barry out.
I suppose it’s entertaining to some to see colourful crime figures from the 60s, based on some of Australia’s actual crims, do their stuff. First of all, this movie is violent, extremely gory and dirty, as the title suggests, in more ways than one. Secondly there’s a great deal of humour, but mostly the kind of humour that has people laughing at the expense of others as when they fall flat on their faces in the shit. Literally. You can almost smell it. What subtlety there is rests only to a small degree in the plot and mainly in the acting and characterisation. For the most part, however, the characters are hard-bitten and cynical, as two-dimensional as the comic-book denizens the director intended them to represent.
A less obvious humour derives from the late 60’s setting – it’s quite funny to see ourselves as we were 30-odd years ago – the back-teased, bouffant hairdos, the opaque pastel make-up applied with a trowel, the clothes and the lurid décor, the hats on the men – as well as remember our love-hate relationship and uneasy cultural status vis-à-vis the United States.
There is also an understated ridicule of those who take themselves too seriously – notably the character of Sal. The characters fall into two categories more or less – amoral criminals who are the players who run the show or think they do, bent cops and others who aid and abet the criminals on the one hand, and some scared pawns caught in the game on the other. Darcy is an exception: someone who goes along with the game until he comes against a personal moral dilemma. Surprisingly, though Barry calls him “Weak as piss!” he respects him for making a stand. Barry’s violence is really only aimed at those who betray him in business or get in his way. Sam Neill’s crooked detective Ray, while being uncharacteristically bland in this role, undoubtedly creates a character whose close relationship with criminals is equally businesslike. Bribery and corruption are simply a way of life and the lengths he goes to in covering up Barry’s extreme business solutions are expected and accepted unquestioningly.
From the name of the main character, Barry Ryan, if not from everything else, it’s apparent director Caesar had Bryan Brown in mind for this movie. Bryan Brown is also one of the movie’s producers. Australian movies seem at this time to be having something of an obsession with the crime genre, what with The Boys (1998), Two Hands (1999), Chopper (2000), Risk (2001), The Bank (2001), The Hard Word (2002) and now Dirty Deeds (2002). Not surprisingly three of these star Bryan Brown while Toni Colette stars in two of them.
Toni Colette’s gum-chewing Sharon is the surprising lynchpin of Barry’s life, showing she is no ordinary wife-in-the background. Not only does she deal unequivocally with her husband’s mistress, it is her strategy which Barry applies when dealing with Tony and Sal’s attempt to muscle in on the action. Kestie Morassi as the young mistress is excellent, her arc taking her from smug complacency and pseudo-sophistication through to a more genuine life path after she meets and falls for Darcy. Sam Worthington maintains a fresh presence throughout of a young fellow trying to make his (honest) way in the world. The intermittent thread of his idea to start a chain of pizza restaurants when he has never even tasted a pizza (pretty much unknown in Sydney in 1969) is an amusing sub-plot and allows John Goodman some humanising elbow-room as a perfectly straight mentor to the young war vet.
Starting off as a pair of brashly arrogant American gangsters, Tony and Sal quickly diverge as we get to know their personalities. John Goodman cannot help but be sympathetic, while Felix Williams’ psychotic Sal is someone we are happy to know is in for a very unpleasant future.
Throughout this film, with all its free-flying blood and excrement, its bloody gangland battles and car chase shoot-outs, its cynical bent cops dead-panning double homicide with “Right! Murder-suicide!” there is the sense that Barry is just doing what is necessary to defend his turf against foreign and internecine predations. It’s business, even when he takes his guests to the desert for a pig-shoot. There is also the sense of the director and actors having a wonderful time with the many incidental comic moments and surprise tricks and outcomes. There is not the slightest morality here at any time. While the audience collectively winces at the wholesale slaughter, it can also laugh through the grimaces. If you’re after a fast-paced action movie with lots of in-your-face humour, in settings as widely contrasted as Sydney in 1969 and the red desert of Broken Hill, then this is your movie. The opening track of the title song by AC/DC and the concluding credits sung by You Am I’s frontman Tim Rogers accompanied by Tex Perkins put the finishing touches to a polished entertainment.
For me, I was just glad to know that no pigs were hurt during the making of this movie.
© Avril Carruthers 22nd July 2002
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