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Second Sight
The BBC crime series
on DVD

. "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead"

The film, "Before Sunset" is, literally, all talk. No narrative deprivation. If there were an oscar for volubility, there'd be no competition. "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" is its complement, the yang of "Before Sunset's" yin, where to speak borders on illegal.

Into its dour, nourish atmosphere steps a master of the laconic brooding central figure, Clive Owen, who gives us ex-kingpin Will Graham, a rare crime leader who develops a conscience and retreats to a simpler, honest life. He's "born-again" decent. But, if you think this supposition is a little questionable, wait'll you see where it's going.

Bringing him back home, to the city he once ruled, is his brother Davey's (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) sudden disappearance. It takes few spoken words (but half the movie) for him to discover that his flashy, opportunist sibling is dead. Now, Will is forced to remain in the city where he scours the underworld as well as the inhabitants of his former life in order to unravel the mystery. He may have given up his criminal ways, but the code of revenge is alive and well.

His rounds bring him back to his jaded, refined former lover Helen (Charlotte Rampling, "Swimming Pool") and to Boad (Malcolm McDowell), the rich car dealer and a degenerate villain if ever there was one.

Director Mike Hodges who devised a surprise hit from his previous collaboration with Owen on "Croupier," works from an original screenplay here by Trevor Preston in an attempt to repeat the formulation of understated charisma, fringes of society, obsessions, and unruly compulsions. What he failed to see was the enervating effect of his hero's insistence on prolongued word economy, as though it were the mark of fascinating character.

Owen's unarguable skill with expressive understatement might have worked. But its overuse makes it a device that backfires, aided by the sad-sack costuming of the character as a lumberjack. His loose, back woods attire is a device to visually emphasize the eventual re-emergence of the classy, feared kingpin as he shifts to the dark suited, gun-toting, justice-seeking bossman that the creative team knows he is. The problem is, the transformation comes way late and our regard for the character has been formed. By the time he makes his transformation, the sleepers may be in the audience and they may miss Owen's mesmerizing voice when he does, finally, start speaking. Some of the threat may be blunted when he repeats his fear-inducing mantra, "I'm Davey's brother."

The structure of the story is the fault zone. The loathsome act that opens the movie begs for discovery and justice but is virtually disregarded until the last act when all the false connections are dispelled and we have to face up to the fact that we've been through a mine field of duds. By an investigative thread of clues, the writers manage to bring us around to the killer when it seems almost coincidental to the avenger's stroll down memory lane, which comprises the main body of the tale. It would seem that the creative team became too involved in making a case for their idea that a man can't escape his past.

The dark, noirish visual atmosphere reflects the human psychopathia that pervades the drama and drives its search for justice, but it finally comes off as a wasted opportunity. The unique quality of Owen's laconic intensity was, perhaps, most memorably applied in the extraordinary BBC TV series, "Second Sight." His Ross Tanner was a Chief Investigator going blind and hiding it -- a finely-realized concept that casts some shame on this little outing that imprisons him in a verbal straight-jacket.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Clive Owen
A criminal kingpin in retreat.

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