Friday, September 02, 2022

Blackbird – an ageing dancer escapes the stage and buys his way onto an actionless filmset

It’s not really a surprise that I was the only person attending the 19:40 Lisburn Omniplex screening of Blackbird on the night the film went on general release. No one ate noisy food or talked during the film. Staff didn’t slip in to check that everyone was behaving. No one arrived at the end to tidy up the popcorn and litter while the credits rolled. It was a great cinema-going experience. But I’d be surprised if cinemas waste the life of their projector bulbs and show the film for a full week.

The 90-minute film begins with a British secret agent Victor (Michael Flatley) burying his former partner – colleague and lover – in the garden of his Cork stately home. He then retires to the Caribbean where he manages a hotel with a night club. He struts around like some kind of dandy, his hands caressing every woman within reach, including an old flame Vivian (Nicole Evans) who arrives on the arm of a particularly dangerous war criminal mastermind Blake (Eric Roberts) who may be selling the formula for a deadly toxin to another evil man. Cue a jealous nightclub singer (Mary Louise Kelly) and a card game that has all the suspense of standing under Big Ben when it chimes at 1pm and wondering what time it is. And watch out for Ian Beattie reprising his Gerry Adams accent from The Journey, this time playing Victor’s old agency sidekick Nick.

A lot of money (financed by Flatley) has been spent on the production of Blackbird, though not quite enough to move the action beyond a handful of locations. And the screenplay (written by Flatley) clearly didn’t attract much serious acting talent. If the script had been handed in by a P7 child set the homework of writing a spy thriller, the teacher would have returned it with a polite note in red pen to try again and put more effort in.

For a spy thriller (directed by Flatley) there are only three action sequences. Very little is spoilt by elaborating a little. Despite having “no strength left to fight” and proclaiming “I’m not the man I used to be”, Flatley proves that he still has an Olympic-powered right hook and dispatches a goon to the pearly gates with a single punch. At another point, Victor disappears off screen and armed with only his gleaming white teeth – wham, bam, bang – overpowers three armed goons. And in a two-versus-four fire-fight, Victor shouts “Shall we dance?” – I kid you not – and lives to tell the tale.

The exchange “I’m worried about him / He’s irreplaceable / No one can do what he does” falsely suggests that Flatley’s character Victor is some sort of superhero. Other than his killer punch, we see little evidence to challenge the notion that he’s not an ageing dancer who has escaped the stage and bought his way onto a filmset.

The suggestion that someone is beheaded and a lingering shot of naked side boob ensures that the film gets a 15 certificate that will save young eyes from the sight of Flatley’s greying chest hair and the shock reveal that Barbados turns out to be full of Irish expats, most of whom have voices and intonation that could cut through a block of cheese.

Some of the cinematography is gorgeous. The film starts with serious strings accompanying drone shots flying over water. Early on we see a candlestick and a bird in a cage, foreshadowing acts of violence and a woman trapped in a bad relationship. There’s an odd aesthetic in several of the locations, with anachronistic rotary dial phones in the same shots as modern equipment, for instance a smartphone or a ruggedised laptop. 

The editing tries hard to work around the dubbing. One particular scene on a beach sticks with a long shot of a couple walking towards the camera, though it’s still clear that their lip movements don’t quite match the words being spoken. Switching to an over-the-shoulder shot of the woman talking buys some more time, before a couple of close-ups actually match mouths with words.

The dialogue is mostly facile: “tragic, you did what you had to do”, “I know trouble when I see it”, “I know him, he’s extremely dangerous, we must get Victor involved”. Occasionally the screenplay resorts to allowing a minor character to speak uninterrupted for a minute to introduce the next major plot point that Flatley mustn’t have been able to afford to – or imagine how to –film or direct in a way that would have told the story visually.

Perhaps the most unexpected lines of dialogue that will surely be repeated in parodies of Blackbird are: “Don’t suppose you’ve been to a wee town in Armagh called Lurgan have you? / Can’t say I have / Must be one of those faces”.

There’s a club pianist who is a cross between Boris Johnson and his father, though we never see his face to confirm who owns the shocking blond hair. The credits labels five cast members as “bikini boat girls” and “bikini beach girls”. The costume department must have been asked to ban bras from the set: plunging cleavage and precious few lines of dialogue are the order of the day for the entire female cast. That might normally be a pass remarkable male gaze comment to make in a review. But from a Bechdel Test point of view, no woman talks to another woman during this film. But lots of men objectify the silent women around them.

Flatley’s character accuses someone of being narcissistic. Look in the mirror?

On the upside ...

Flatley dances (twice).

Blackbird is mercifully short.

Saturday is National Cinema Day and ticket prices are at rock bottom prices. The weather forecast is awful. Blackbird is currently playing in most local cinemas. But if you want to spend an hour and half in the warm and dry, maybe choose something more worthwhile to enjoy! 

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Unknown said...

Surely you could amuse yourself by marvelling at the staggering lack of self-awareness you'd need to make a film like this? If you want your list of positives to be longer, you could include that.

Tatters said...

Well, it's a "passion project", so a small degree of nihilism should be factored in. However, let's look on the bright side- he has at least put his money where his mouth is, and created something that future film makers, writers and directors can measure themselves against. And one thing that cannot be ignored, is the fact that he invested in the film making business, making money and work available to people who work in the business. I humbly applaud his efforts, even it isn't the raging success he hoped it would be. Kudos to Mr Flatley for having a go, at the very least.