In an age over-saturated with slick American teen drama series with a supernatural theme – many still characterised by the enduring influence of BUFFY and all of them hoping to be as long running as SUPERNATURAL – HEARTLESS is a distinctively Danish take on the form. Played commendably straight and without the smart-arse, self-aware humour that tends to dominate its U.S. equivalents, it’s an absorbing, if sometimes ponderous, eight-episode serial that has scope for further seasons.
In the early going of episode one, we witness photogenic teen twins Sofie (Julie Zangenberg) and Sebastian (Sebastian Jessen) luring and feeding in an almost vampiric fashion from an unfortunate young man in a nightclub who, as a result of their necessary act, promptly bursts into flames. The siblings have to feed on the life force of other people in order to survive and fatal consequences result if their feeding reaches a certain level. Sebastian, the more sensitive of the duo, wrestles with his own conscience of their activities, and together the twins set out to find out who and what they really are. They revisit the orphanage from which they originally ran away as infants, and discover that their mother attended an ultra-strict, rural boarding school. Joining as second year students, they learn about the dark history of the school itself – with the sadistic modern hierarchy carrying on old traditions of persecution and torture - and its inextricable links to their own bloodline.
Shot in muted tones and colours with the central school permanently enshrouded by mist, HEARTLESS is an atmospheric series built around a premise that inevitably echoes significant earlier American genre works. Sebastian (who tortuously reins in his need to feed wherever possible) gets the come-on from various girls at the school but his perfectly normal lustiness blurs with the unavoidable needs of his monstrous self when aroused, a la CAT PEOPLE. (The notion of a tortured, handsome male lead unable to fulfil romantic relationships due to the threat he poses, is of course, a throwback to BUFFY and ANGEL). The concept of family members with a desperate compulsion to feed on humans and a peculiarly incestuous relationship with each other has echoes of Stephen King’s far sillier SLEEPWALKERS. There are also CARRIE-inspired sub-plots involving the telekinetic powers of key secondary characters.
It could very easily be reincarnated as a generic, slick U.S. series, but the execution here is very Scandinavian. The tone is sombre and understated, with an underlying erotic charge and a real effort to minimise FX and melodrama in favour of a realistic approach to the potentially outlandish material. The backstory, including flashbacks to 17th century witch-hunts linked to the school principal’s three daughters, is effectively integrated into the contemporary narrative, and the performances are strong all round: the two leads are striking. For those that crave such things, there are occasional intrusions of predictably bad CGI fire and some fleeting, gratuitous shower-room nudity, but HEARTLESS has a beguiling style of its own, even when retreading age-old plot threads like the old “Only love can break the curse…” chestnut that we have seen in sundry earlier genre projects.
INTERVIEWS, FILM, BLU-RAY, DVD AND BOOK REVIEWS
blu-ray REVIEW - i am wrath - **
Directed by Chuck Russell. Starring John Travolta, Amanda Schull, Rebecca De Mornay, Christopher Meloni, Luis Da Silva Jr., Doris Morgado, Paul Sloan. Action/Thriller, USA, 90 mins, cert 15.
Released in the UK on DVD & Blu-ray by 101 Films on 16th May 2016.
It has a name now. They call it ‘geriaction’. It’s when an established actor of advanced years makes an action or revenge thriller. Liam Neeson is generally regarded as kicking off the whole thing back in 2009 with TAKEN, and despite it not being the greatest movie ever made it became something of a commercial hit, spawning two dumb sequels and giving Neeson a late career boost, enabling him to keep making the same film over and over again, albeit with different names (A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES, NON-STOP, etc.). In the bigger scheme of things it gave other older actors a chance to flex their B-movie muscles and cash some paychecks as the blockbuster roles thin out a bit – RED, HARRY BROWN, GRAN TURISMO, MACHETE, DEATH SENTENCE, ESCAPE PLAN, HOW I SPENT MY SUMMER VACATION and many others all rode the wave but in truth it isn’t really a new thing. The real starting point for the geriaction movie is 1974’s DEATH WISH, which saw an aging Charles Bronson tracking down the thugs that raped and murdered his family, and such was the impact and brutal execution of that movie (and its subsequent sequels) that anything made since then in a similar vein always felt inferior.
And now it’s the turn of John Travolta to get in on the action. Since his major comeback in 1994’s PULP FICTION Travolta’s career has been patchy to say the least, so maybe a touch of the Bronson/Neeson formula of revenge movies could work wonders, although if that was to happen it wouldn’t be with I AM WRATH. Travolta play Stanley Hill, a seemingly ordinary guy who has just returned home after working away and is greeted at the airport by his wife Vivian (Rebecca De Mornay), a . On the walk back to their car the couple are confronted by a gang of thugs demanding money, with Stanley being beaten to the ground and Vivian fatally stabbed. Stanley identifies one of the gang in a line-up but he is released by the police, who claim that Stanley is an unreliable witness due to his injuries, so Stanley turns to his friend Dennis (Christopher Meloni) for help. It turns out that Stanley and Dennis have a history in the Special Forces and use everything in their arsenal to find the thugs responsible and get to the real reason for Vivian’s murder.
Because there is a reason beyond a common mugging, and this is all telegraphed from the opening scenes of news reports of escalating crime and a state governor – whom Vivian works for – promising to clean up the streets. It’s all handled a bit too clumsily so that when Vivian is killed it is glaringly obvious who is behind it but, unfortunately, before we get to the big boss we have to go through Lemi K (Paul Sloan), the local crime lord and one of the most unconvincing bad guys ever to appear in an action movie, his porn star moustache the most threatening thing about him, although it isn’t just his lines that are awful as Paul Sloan’s performance is just as painful to listen to as John Travolta’s hairpiece is to look at.
The biggest let-down with I AM WRATH, though, is that it isn’t a total let-down and is, at best, average. Chuck Russell’s economical direction is both a blessing and a curse depending on what is happening in that particular scene; when the film requires a swift action scene it is framed and delivered convincingly and with little fat on it, but conversely when the plot needs to offer a little more than what we’re given in the script it fails to indulge us in any additional detail. Travolta himself is fairly bland for most of the film but manages to come to life whenever he is on-screen with Christopher Meloni, who gives the standout performance and portrays a more interesting character than Travolta’s Stanley Hill. It’s a shame that the best scene of the film is right at the end during the final exchange between the two characters whilst trying to escape from a hospital, as the two actors seem to have forged a nice chemistry with each other and give the scene a bit of a buddy movie comic edge. Had the whole film featured this kind of banter and bonhomie then it would have been a lot more entertaining than it ended up being but the plot is so thin and the script so clunky and seemingly rushed that the two actors don’t really have that much to work with for the most part, and the way that Stanley’s secret life is introduced and the lack of any background on him or Dennis is so ham-fisted that it feels like either a lot of detail was cut out or the film written on the fly and it was never filmed.
But if you’ve exhausted your post-TAKEN Liam Neeson collection, had enough of Bruce Willis phoning it in or live in hope that Robert De Niro can find his action mojo again then you may get something out of I AM WRATH. It looks pretty good, there are some attempts at a bit of style with some of the action scenes and Christopher Meloni is an absolute joy whenever he is on-screen but overall it feels like something that was cobbled together once the filmmakers knew they had Travolta signed up. It isn’t the worst film Travolta has put his name to in recent years and it dumps all over the likes of Bruce Willis’ dire EXTRACTION from a great height but when put up against other, more exciting geriaction titles I AM WRATH really doesn’t come off all that well.