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Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2001
So you think you're some sort of wiseguy?
By KAORI SHOJI
"Oi, mate, what'ya up to this weekend?" "Dunno. Nothin' special -- maybe a spot of snooker." "How d'ya fancy making a film with us, then?" "Uhhhh . . ." "Come on. You get to play with guns, an' dress up an' say a few lines. Anyhow, there's no football on Saturday is there." "Fair enough. See you down the pub."
It's easy to imagine a conversation like this at the genesis of the project that became "Love, Honour and Obey." Made by and starring a close-knit circle of friends, the film dishes up the oxymoronic experience of a "professional home movie."
There is almost a feeling of eavesdropping here, as if we are watching the likes of Jonny Lee Miller, Jude Law and Ray Winstone call each other by their real names, hang out at pubs together and generally behave so naturally it's easy to forget this is a movie and not an underground voyeuristic video of the British stars.
But then this is filmmaking duo Dominic Anciano and Ray Burdis' specialty. Following the success of "Final Cut," which was a fictional documentary of Jude Law's death and funeral, "Love, Honour and Obey" gathers almost the exact same cast (with a few additions) and once again fashions a heavily improvised, surprisingly casual tale of violence and betrayal.
You'll see the shaky hand-held camera and often faulty lighting, and spot the obvious ad libs. You'll see that it's not all acting; at times the expressions are fleetingly genuine, which adds to the eerie, pseudoreality of it all. There's one scene, for instance, where Miller casually stabs one of his friends in a pub. The action is so smooth and perfectly timed, with everyone else laughing and treating it as a huge joke, that seeing the blood afterward comes as a total shock -- even though, hey, it's only a movie.
This isn't fiction masquerading as documentary; Anciano and Burdis engineer it so that it is fiction on the exact same level as documentary, the two genres playing an evenly matched game of chess.
Jonny (Miller) is a London mailman who yearns for another job, specifically to be a gangster in a powerful clan headed by Ray (Ray Winstone). Jonny thinks getting in will be easy, since his childhood friend Jude (Jude Law) is Ray's nephew and right-hand thug. Jude hesitates. Letting Jonny join up carries a huge risk: If his friend screws up, Jude must shoulder the responsibility. Jonny promises he will cause no trouble.
But once inside, Jonny realizes that London's dark side isn't as dark or violent as he had imagined. Ray is gaga over girlfriend Sadie (Sadie Frost), a soap-opera actress with an attitude the size of a supertanker, and most evenings he's crooning love songs in her direction at a karaoke bar. The others are mostly the same, preoccupied with girlfriends, sex lives, the pros and cons of home electronics -- and all bound together by a common love of karaoke.
Jonny is mightily disappointed. If you don't get to brutalize someone at least every other day, what is the point of being a gangster? He decides to inject a little bit of "The Godfather" into their lives by becoming a one-man tornado of senseless mayhem. Jonny is sure he is doing the right thing, and that this will finally get Ray to drop the microphone and grab a couple of AK-47s.
"Love, Honour and Obey" skips happily back and forth between senseless violence and senseless comedy (mostly scatological sight-gags recalling Mr. Bean). While Jonny forces the reluctant Jude into a series of pranks that involve spraying people's faces with the word "mug," shooting dealers point-blank in the face and other gangster activities, other members such as Burdis (Ray Burdis) and Dom (Dominic Anciano) are popping Viagra, trying out porn equipment and planning Ray and Sadie's wedding.
Jonny is disgusted. The others don't even dress like gangsters, especially Ray, who always looks as though he's about to go bowling. But Jonny underestimates how scary Ray can really be, and this, in the end, proves to be his biggest mistake.
True to the Burdis/Anciano style, "Love, Honour and Obey" offers no heartwarming moments, no redemption or anything in the characters to sympathize with. It's just black, start to finish -- the color of industrial waste poured into an already polluted river.
This, of course, is where the power and strength of the movie lie. Casual, low-budget but highly professional, "Love, Honour and Obey" comes off as either a freak extravagance of an indie film or as a private, guerrilla work made in a huge posh studio. In any case, Burdis' comment in the production notes is telling: "We could never have done this in an American company." No kidding.