Thursday, 24 February 2011

Review - 'Travellers' brings survivalist thrills on a shoestring

Four mates, all well-paid city boys, head out on their motorcycles for a few days away from it all in the great outdoors. The plan is to make a proper boy's-own adventure of it, with a bit of biking, hiking, climbing, rafting, orbing and the like. But one of their number likes to play things a wee bit too devil may care. Spotting an Irish travellers' caravan which appears abandoned, he decides to vandalise it. Naturally, it turns out the caravan is not abandoned after all, and its owners are far from happy. But as the lads run to the woods for cover, things quickly escalate, and it isn't long before there's blood on the ground. And so the scene is set for a bitter struggle to stay alive, in which prejudices are confronted, true natures revealed, and sanity tested.

Yes, we're very much in the realm of Deliverance and Southern Comfort here. Travellers is as much a two-fisted action film as it is a rumination on the nature of the violent impulse, the extent to which it is inherent in all men, and how it is handled by those used to a life of comfort. While at first the viewer might anticipate a fairly clear-cut, black and white, good guys versus bad guys film, this debut film from writer/director Kris McManus is happily a more sophisticated piece of storytelling, which (pun intended) doesn't pull too many punches.

There a few key factors working against it, no doubt. Most obvious of these is the budget. This is clearly a real shoestring affair; the DV cinematography and sound mix are not great, and there some continuity issues here and there (notably an early campfire scene in which the audio clearly doesn't match the action). Plus, as also tends to be the case in microbudget films, the performances and the dialogue often leave a bit to be desired as well, with many of the key players coming off quite stilted and awkward.* This is unfortunately most true of Shane Sweeney, essentially the lead as Chris, whose white collar existence hides a more colourful history. The character's progression from the lad with the mildest temprement to the toughest fighter among them strains credibility somewhat, and Sweeney struggles to sell it to us. (It doesn't help that he's called on to repeatedly use the term 'asshole.' Come on guys, this is a British production and British people say arsehole.)

Happily, this is not the case with Tom Geoffrey who portrays Alex, the one whose prank sets the ball rolling. A reject of the Territorial Army who fancies himself a modern warrior - yes, rather like Mike from Spaced, but played straight - he is perhaps the most complex character in the film, gradually slipping into a kind of madness. As the one with most vocal in his bigotry against travellers, much of the film's commentary on prejudice comes from his scenes. All this considered, if this performance didn't work then it's likely the film wouldn't work at all. But Geoffrey does a great job, and of all the actors in the film I should expect the brightest future will be for him; there are a great many more wild-eyed madmen roles with this guy's name on them.

The other real strength of this film is the action sequences. You'll notice that the words 'fearsome bare-knuckle boxing' are splashed across the cover, and not without justification; Travellers does indeed boast a few such fight sequences which are very well realised. But for the most part this is a chase film, with a fast pace that rarely lets up. It is the skill with which these scenes are staged that really pinpoints Kris McManus as a filmmaker to look out for. He crafts battles and chases which can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those of Hollywood action blockbusters, presumably having spent less than such megabudget productions would on catering.

Yes, the lack of funds may mean the film is a bit lacking aesthetically, and the social commentary isn't handled quite so well as the beat-'em-up action, but Travellers is still one of the most impressive low budget films I've seen in some time. Someone give Kris McManus £20 million now, and I have no doubt we'll have a British action film the whole world will get excited about.

Travellers is released to Region 2 DVD from High Fliers Films on 28th February 2011.

* I might add this also applies to the biggest name in the film, Charley Boorman; but I hasten to add that, although his name may be listed above the title, he only has a throwaway cameo appearance with very little impact on the narrative, so quite what drew him to the part I don't know. The presence of motorbikes in the synopsis, maybe?

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