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In Harm's Way (2011)

Gangland Playing

I don't know where Restraining Hollywood came from, but this year the studio has released two of the slickest, most professional independent films I've seen. Considering the fact that both movies were produced with budgets far more modest than even the lowest-rung Hollywood blockbuster, Potpourri and In Harm's Way are as likely to make you wonder, "How did they do that?" as Avatar. Though helmed by different directors, they share a commitment to excellent cinematography, editing, score, and ambition that raises the bar for all filmmaking efforts, large or small.

Strangely, it's ambition that makes In Harm's Way good but not great. A heartbreaking miss by the slimmest of margins, Director John Karsko and his co-writers Mike Borka, and Brandon Van Vliet set their sites on the world of elite organized crime in a move that highlights the production's shortcomings instead of working around them.

The plot is a delicious bowl of underworld spaghetti, with cops and mobsters crossing and double-crossing each other to conceal their sins. At the center of it all is syndicate boss J. Markeaur (Van Vliet), a ruthless prick who's been exiled to a foreign island from which he oversees his considerable drug empire. His right-hand man, Stevie (Eric McCulloch), is on the ground in Chicago, supplying an army of dealers with coke and quietly using the kingpin's resources to carry out personal vendettas. He employs two eager pushers, Ian (Borka) and Tory (Anjel White) to knock off two of Markeaur's cousins (a minor detail of which they weren't aware). Stevie offers them a promotion in exchange for covering up their crimes, and the boys set up an estranged friend named Michael (Nathan Tymoshuk), to take the fall.

Meanwhile, Markeaur's younger brother, Marko (Ryan Kiser), and his girlfriend, Sonja (Jessica Van Vliet), rip through the family empire in a series of grisly kidnappings and murders--turns out bad blood is especially harmful if one's sibling is a serial killer. I won't dive further into the plot, which involves more hitmen duos, good cops, corrupt cops, and a former child star with delusions of being the next Tony Montana.

That sounds exciting, doesn't it? It is exciting, on paper (or, in pixels, as the case may be), but In Harm's Way suffers from three major issues that prevent it from being the modern crime classic that Karsko and company set out to create--all of which go back to ambition:

1. Scale and Feasibility. This is a twofer, because the issues go hand-in-hand. J. Markeaur would have been a far more believable villain had he been written as Chicago's most powerful gangster instead of a heavy-hitter on the world stage. From a production standpoint, Karsko just doesn't have the locations and resources at his disposal to sell the idea. Markeaur's "island compound" looks like a wealthy friend's really nice house, and his crazy drugs-and-sex-fueled party is too sparsely attended and closely shot to feel like anything more than an average player's weekend basement get-together.

While I appreciate the throwaway line about Markeaur's missing this year's Bohemian Grove confab, it underscores the audience's disconnect with the character. For a guy who's supposedly untouchable, indeed one of the planet's most powerful men, he does an awful lot of traveling sans bodyguard, and the scene where he receives bloody packages in his home nearly shorted out my "bullshit" detector.

Had Markeaur been a big fish in Chicago who spent most of the picture, say, away on business, I might have bought what the screenwriters were selling. As a presence, Van Vliet does a great job making Markeaur into a quietly angry operator who loves pulling strings and hates to be bothered--which makes his lack of caution towards the end of the film pretty jarring.

One last thing: would the right-hand man of such a notorious power-player really spend much of his time driving a forklift in a South Side warehouse? Or is that the kind of job one might expect a flunky-intern to do? I like the Stevie character a lot (probably because McCulloch bears an uncanny resemblance to David Koechner), but much of his story makes absolutely no sense.

2. Acting. In Potpourri, I could point to a couple of actors who didn't shine quite as brightly as their co-stars. In Harm's Way has the exact inverse problem. The performers can't shoulder all the blame, as both film share practically the same cast. In this case, I think the material makes the difference. Potpourri was about slacker college kids played by young people who weren't that far removed from the life experiences of their characters.

Asking those same performers to play criminals and cops is a big leap, and many of them aren't up to the task. It's unfortunate, because the actors all look their parts and exhibit tremendous physicality in both their actions scenes and simply striking cool poses. But when they open their mouths, the results are often so stilted as to be wince-inducing. Most of them seem to be playing roles instead of inhabiting people, and the handful of standouts* cast a really harsh light on everyone else.

In Harm's Way follows in the tradition of sprawling gangster epics with top-notch casts like The Departed and True Romance. It's impossible not to think of those movies when watching In Harm's Way--not just from a story standpoint, but also because the film looks like it could have played in the same cineplexes as those movies. The disconnect between the visuals and the line delivery is so jarring that I often felt like I'd mistakenly switched on a foreign-language track.

3. Dialogue. The other half of the Acting equation, this movie's dialogue is, for the most part...ugh, I'm leaning towards "atrocious", but it's difficult to tell if the writers were going for a genre send-up or a genre homage. Either way, In Harm's Way is packed with the kind of tough-guy dialogue that you've heard in a dozen low-caliber cop shows. Worse yet, the writing (and, I'm sure the directing) negatively informs the actors. The cops are all hunched hulks with furrowed brows; the criminals are club-dressed hulks with furrowed brows; and the women are weepy eye candy who make little impression beyond "cop" or "girlfriend".

Much of the film's conversations are functional--with so much plot swimming around the characters, they almost have to be. But that doesn't excuse the lack of personality in the writing. Contrast this with Potpourri, which was all about imagination and potential, and In Harm's Way comes off as a movie that is so enamored with its (admittedly cool) ideas that the messy particulars of speech are relegated to a "Macho Dialogue" Google search.

By now, you may be wondering, "What the hell kind of recommendation is this?"

That's a great, easily answered question. Despite my issues with the movie, there's no denying that In Harm's Way is an amazing feat of independent filmmaking. If you could isolate the soundtrack and watch it as a silent film with musical accompaniment, you'd be in for a real treat. Composer Braden Palmer and cinematographer Kevin Horn's work on the opening credits sequence alone is worth the price of admission, and the whole film is thrilling from an audio/visual standpoint--except when that audio involves characters talking.

In Harm's Way is, I think, a case of gifted filmmakers over-shooting their mark. As an artist, it pains me to say that this kind of scale really is better left to the big leagues. This movie could have really been something special had the creators pulled back and told a more intimate story (the idea of a crime lord with a serial-killer brother has been touched on in other films, but never broadened to its full potential. In Harm's Way comes close, and in Kiser and Van Vliet's few scenes together, my brain screamed, "Yes! Let's learn more about these guys! Fuck da police!").

My less-than-exuberant reaction to the movie has in no way diminshed my excitement for Karsko or for Restraining Hollywood. Both have proven to be exciting presences on the indie scene who will, I'm sure, force their moviemaking peers to step it up. But they're on the same hook, too.

*Douglas Sidney is the film's real discovery. As child-star-turned-addict-turned-drug-dealer Tommie Domino, he brings a uniquely blitzed pathos to a character we've seen several times before. He and Kiser appear to have created complex identities for themselves, rather than relying on the page to inform their performances.

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