Saturday, 9 June 2018

Double X: The Name of the Game (1992)

"An underrated British crime thriller with a superb cast and a car chase that actuals thrills. Made on a shoestring budget but with good production values. Entertaining. Great value for money"

Not my words you understand (the spelling mistake isn't mine either) but the words of a glowing five star review of the film on Amazon that is written by none other than...

Shani Grewal - the film's writer, producer and director. 

Hmm. You could have at least used an alias mate?

In reality, Double X: The Name of the Game feels like the kind of film a classroom full of eight year olds might come up with if you'd shown them The Long Good Friday and asked them to have a go at making something similar. But, because it has a rather unlikely star in the shape of comedian Norman Wisdom, it's a film that has a certain attraction for anyone of a certain age and British (or perhaps Albanian, given he was huge there). Yes, that's right little Norman Pipkin has gone deadly serious in his old age, playing the timid employee and criminal brains of a gangland empire known as 'The Organisation' who wants out after seeing how deadly the muscle around him is. 

And what an odd organisation it is; firstly there's Bernard Hill, chewing the scenery as a crippled Oirish sadist called Iggy Smith. Hill clearly knows full well he's a world away not only from Boys From The Blackstuff but also the last big screen crime thriller he was involved in, Bellman and True, and sets about treating the material with the disrespect it deserves. Then there's Simon Ward on oily form as the organisation's Mr Big, who harbours ambitions to become a politician - thereby entering a more nefarious occupation than the one he currently holds, obviously. Lastly there's Leon Herbert as a henchman - he has 'previous', having had at that point recently starred as one of Leslie Grantham's minders in the crime series The Paradise Club.

It's odd to see Wisdom in such an environment - though he was no stranger to straight drama, having a straight(ish) role in The Night They Raided Minsky's and having already played an old con in an episode of Bergerac in the '80s - and, despite it being a little disconcerting to see him wielding a gun or performing in a couple of action sequences (look out for a scene where he has to slap his duplicitous, backstabbing girlfriend, played by Gemma Craven; it's the weakest slap in cinema history - though Craven flies across the room like she's been hit by Ricky Hatton!) and his daughter, played by future Red Dwarf star ChloĆ« Annett, is clearly young enough to actually be his granddaughter, there's nevertheless something mildly charming about seeing him branch out in such fare so late in the game. Plus of course, there's the residual affection we feel just because it is Norman Wisdom after all. 

The film is all over the shop structurally, opening with William Katt as a former cop with the Chicago PD vacationing in Scotland before we get Wisdom's convoluted backstory. Initially it feels like both actors are jostling for star position. Katt is clearly there to attract the US market but, given that around this time he was perhaps best known for being Perry Mason's assistant on TV, he's hardly the Hollywood A-lister parachuted in to raise this low budget British thriller into the big league. It also doesn't help that he's as wooden as hell, providing the film with a voice over that has all the energy of a bile bean - although, given a twist down the line that might be intentional? (No, I'm being way too kind here I think!). Pretty much immediately after the opening credits, Katt checks in at a hotel and stumbles upon the assassination attempt of fellow guest Norman Wisdom and comes to his rescue with a nifty car chase. With our leads fleeing the scene, we then flashback to some three years earlier and, narrated now by the more wide-awake Wisdom, we learn just how he came to be in this mess in the first place. You see, his old gangland colleagues aren't happy with him just going on the run like that and now they want him dead. Plot twists quickly follow and, inbetween the odd explosion and hail if machine gun bullets, it soon becomes clear that you can't trust anyone in this particular game - whatever it's bloody name is! Unfortunately, the whole thing is so poorly put together and misjudged that it's really hard to care all that much about what's going on, despite the twists and turns or the occasional bit of good stuntwork. 

Double X: The Name of the Game isn't the worst British gangster movie out there (that's probably still the ultra-cheapo Shadow Run, starring Michael Caine and James Fox) but it runs close. It may have been made in 1992, but it already seems dated for then, feeling more like a mid '80s production with its jazzy score and neon blue hued credits. It's one to watch for a certain nostalgia I guess, as there are brief roles for Derren Nesbitt and Vladek Sheybal in his final film role, but overall it's the kind of film that reminds you - aside from the odd hit from Handmade and the reliability of Merchant Ivory - just how low the British film industry had sunk by the 1980s and early '90s and how little money it was actually expected to make films on. If you're a glutton for punishment this might serve as a 'good' double bill with Tank Malling.

When he's not writing Amazon reviews about his own films, Shani Grewal directs television dramas such as the daytime soap Doctors and the Saturday evening stalwart that is Casualty. It's probably more on his level.

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