Life of Crime
With a stylised veneer of glossy black humour Daniel Schechter’s Elmore Leonard adaptation Life of Crime goes some way to fulfilling the promise of its exceptional elements without quite managing to equal the sum of its parts.
Adapting Leonard’s 1978 crime caper The Switch many viewers will recognise the criminal protagonists Ordell Robbie and Louis Gara from Tarantino’s 1997 adaptation of Leonard’s 1992 novel Rum Punch which hit the screens post Pulp Fiction as his Pam Grier love letter Jackie Brown. It’s difficult not to see Life of Crime as a loose prequel to Jackie Brown but the comparison proves somewhat unhelpful. Let’s face it: who can go back-to-back in the droll caper film arena with Tarantino and come off looking good?
Life of Crime fronts a younger feeling, less cynical Ordell and Louis in Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def) and John Hawkes (Deadwood’s Sol Star / Teardrop from Winter’s Bone) hatching hang-dog schemes in 70s Detroit. The pair see the possibility of a significant payday in dicey real estate developer Frank Dawson (Tim Robbins) but their attempts to extort him by kidnapping and ransoming his wife, socialite Mickey Dawson (an unexpectedly impressive Jennifer Aniston), go awry when they discover all is not happy on the home front. The plot is filled out with the best of 70s gold digging mistresses (Home and Away’s Isla Fisher), spineless wannabe lovers (Will Forte, Nebraska), and socially challenged neo-Nazis (Mark Boone Junior, Sons of Anarchy).
I’m a big fan of both Bey/Def and Hawkes. Their versions of Ordell and Louis, though distinct from the Jackson / De Niro pairing, work quite well as friends whose values seem at odds as often as they are in accord. Mark Boone Junior’s Richard is compelling as a simultaneously laughable and disturbing point of contention between the partners. Even Aniston’s Mickey is a nicely graded character and I don’t often have much time for her work. Schechter and cinematographer Eric Alan Edwards’ camera maintains a steady, if restless sense of movement. Lighting is a smart mix of dim and bright mirroring characters and mood though showing a slight kind of soft focus aesthetic throughout as if to approximate the cinema of the era. The Newton Brothers’ soundtrack also feels like an approximation of the era as opposed to say Tarantino’s method of breathing new life into old or forgotten classics for a very legit feeling musical backbone in his films.
As a caper film Life of Crime is entertaining if nothing new. The high calibre cast more than hold their own with the kind of satisfying shading of character that many more active films tend to miss. But as an Elmore Leonard adaptation—over half of his 50+ novels/shorts have been adapted for film and television!—this is firmly mid-tier. A fun, even thoughtful night out but by no means a genre classic. Still, being his third feature, Daniel Schechter (who adapted the screenplay and edited the film on top of directing it) looks like a filmmaker to keep an eye on.
IN CINEMAS Thursday, 20th Nov 2014.