The British director Danny Boyle certainly has his legion of fans and a pretty varied assortment of films starting with the gritty "Trainspotting", running through the feel-good "Slumdog Millionaire" and the harrowing "127 Hours", but somehow he has never roped me into his fanbase. Of course he is now something of a national hero or even worse a national treasure after his stirring and well-received opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics. He apparently shot the above film on his offdays from Olympic planning and has himself described it as a "dark evil cousin" to all of the sweetness and light on the Olympic field. It may well have been some sort of light relief for him to work on this neo-noir, but it is something of a quandary for the viewer -- a breathless roller-coaster of deliberately misleading action and reaction.
James McAvoy plays a fine-arts auctioneer with a penchant for gambling and is deeply in debt. He conspires with professional thief Franck (Vincent Cassel -- playing his usual suave and sadistic persona) to cover his debts by stealing a 20 million pound painting for him. This action lasts some ten minutes before the front credits and is filmed at a breakneck pace by Boyle's regular cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. The fly in the ointment is that after a blow on the head McAvoy's Simon can't quite recall where he stashed the painting. Enter hynotherapist Rosario Dawson whose job it is to unlock Simon's memory and retrieve the artwork for Franck (or more likely for herself as it emerges). The windy screenplay is full of twists and turns which deliberately muddle the boundaries between reality and wishful thinking and hypnotic suggestibility. In short the film is technically superb but narratively obtuse and in the end 100% unbelievable.
I still find it a little hard to view McAvoy as a plausible action hero -- there remains something of the nerd about his character -- and the transition here between poor shlub and ruthless man of action is too much of a stretch. He can be likeable enough which perhaps explains the career he has had to date, but one can think of any number of actors who might have handled this role as well or even better or for that matter more credibly. We are deliberately kept in the dark regarding the past relationships among the three main characters and the revelations, when they come, seem too much of a stretch. Dawson acquits herself well in what in the end is an underwritten role. She manages to sexually manipulate both Franck and Simon to achieve her own ends. I should add that there is a certain amount of singularly gratuitous nudity on her part, which adds very little to the logic of the excercise, although there is no denying that she has a magnificent body on display when she removes her kit.
In mitigation of the above lukewarm critique, I must admit that I was feeling singularly under the weather while watching this film and probably indulged in a little fading in and out of the twisty action. I don't know if a second viewing would correct my inconsistent attention span, but somehow I doubt it. I can picture myself getting even more annoyed by the tricks that Boyle and his screenwriters have lying in wait for the unwary audience. Meanwhile, Danny, enjoy your 'national treasure' role -- such fame is fleeting.