Clive Owen as Will Graham
Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Davey Graham
Charlotte Rampling as Helen
Malcolm McDowell as Boad
Noel Clarke as Cyril
Desmond Bayliss as Cannibal (Jez)
Geoff Bell as Arnie Ryan
Ross Boatman as Malone
Brian Croucher as Shaw
Damian Dibben as David Myers
Jamie Foreman as Mickser
Paul Mohan as Coroner
Marc O’Shea as Paulin
Kirris Riviere as Big John
Ken Stott as Turner
Sylvia Syms as Mrs. Barz
Will Graham (Clive Owen) is a former assassin, who has left that life and the city behind for the tranquility of country living. When his younger brother Daveey turns up dead of a suicide, he returns to the city to find out why, pulling him back into the gangster world that he tried so hard to leave behind.
The latest film from Mike Hodges, director of the British crime classic Get Carter, reunites him with Clive Owen, star of his remarkable 2000 casino drama Croupier. I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead covers similar territory as Get Carter, being a fairly typical revenge thriller, but it adds a rather unique twist to cliché-ridden genre. Unfortunately, that twist is so foreign to the gangster genre that it will turn off many who would usually enjoy this type of film and make others uncomfortable. It’s commendable that Hodges and screenwriter Trevor Preston wanted to explore a sensitive subject within the realms of a typical gangster film, but for the most part, it doesn’t work. (Trying to explain why it doesn’t work without giving it away is a bit more difficult.)
The movie opens well enough with scenes that establish Davey’s lifestyle as a drug dealer and Will’s life in the country. These first fifteen or twenty minutes are used to draw you into the lives of these characters while not exactly revealing everything about their connection. Hodges uses these early moments to successfully build up tension and suspense as we see Davey stalked by an unseen assailant in the manner of the best thrillers.
Things begin to go wrong once Davey’s body is found in the bathtub with his throat slit, and Will returns to the city, spending the rest of the movie trying to figure out what made his brother want to kill himself. Since we have already seen what happened, there is no mystery, and yet, it still doesn’t ring true. Regardless, the movie spends far too much time going into every excruciating detail of the incident, as Will listens to one pathologist after another giving each of them the same emotionless non-reaction. This stuff-mostly related to the aforementioned twist–really slows the movie’s pace down, and it never really gets into a groove, jumping around far too much. The storytelling would have been greatly improved by better editing choices.
As Will tries to get the answers about who is responsible so that he can get revenge, he comes into contact with his brother’s grieving best friend, played by Jamie Forman. To put it quite bluntly, Foreman destroys every scene in which he appears in with ridiculous levels of overacting. When he’s not acting like a tough guy, he’s bawling like a little girl and going completely over-the-top. His character doesn’t work, so it’s a shame that much of the movie features him.
By contrast, Owen isn’t much better, as he spends most of the movie walking around like an emotionless zombie. Maybe this was done to try to create the illusion of Will being a steely killer, but his few lines are delivered so stiffly that you can never feel much for his character. No emotional connection is ever developed between Will and his brother Davey, nor any of the other characters, for that matter.
It’s not clear whether Owen’s character was once romantically linked to the significantly older Charlotte Rampling, the fine actress from the thriller Swimming Pool. Considering their mutual experience, their scenes together should have been the strongest ones in the movie, but instead, they’re a rather wooden back-and-forth, as if they were reading the lines from a teleprompter. Maybe they just realized that little could be done to save the movie from Trevor Preston’s banal script, which is so full of movie clichés that many of the scenes seem to be taken verbatim from previous films.
The actual gangsters are so wimpy as they sit in their cars worrying about Will being back, that as most of them sit in their cars worrying about Will being back in the city, but never doing anything about it. Malcolm McDowell is usually a great bad guy, but his scenes are far too few and we never learn the connection between him, Will, Davey and those other gangsters. None of it makes any sense.
After such a long rambling build-up, a movie needs to have a memorable pay-off and it just wasn’t there. Owen spends most of the movie looking scruffy, but when he gets a hair cut, shaves and puts on a nice suit, Pierce Brosnan better watch out, because he is instantly transformed into James Bond-possibly to drive home the point that Owen is best suited to take over the role. When the now dapper Owen finally comes face to face with his brother’s attacker, we’re subjected to an inane speech from McDowell that makes about as much sense as anything else in the movie.
It’s too bad, because despite the problems with the story, script and acting, the movie’s technically well done and stylish. The lighting and cinematography are exceptional and it features a beautiful and unique soundtrack by Simon Fisher Turner, combining jazz and ambient noise. These factors are essential for setting the mood and atmosphere for the story, but once again, it proves how style can never fully prevail over substance, or lack thereof.
The Bottom Line:
What should have been a taut gangster thriller gets so bogged down in its attempt at a clever twist-one that fans of the genre will be turned off by no less-that it’s doubtful that anything or anyone could have saved it after that. If this were made by a first-time director, the problems could be brushed off to lack of experience, but this is the work of the director and star of one of the better crime dramas of the last five years. It’s a true shame that I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead ends up being only slightly better than a made-for-cable movie.