Five months ago, I wrote a review on “Home Again”, a feature-length drama shot almost entirely in Trinidad (though I mistakenly assumed at the time that a large percentage of scenes was shot in Jamaica – since the story was set in Jamaica). Despite the movie’s flaws (particularly in its script and character development), I declared back then that it was: “a step in the right direction for Caribbean cinema”. As a Trinidadian myself, it’s not every day – or should I say every weekend – that I see feature-length films from Trinidad, Tobago, Jamaica, and other islands of the Caribbean showing in movie theaters. I actually felt a sense of pride seeing the poster for “Home Again” next to the more-recognizable posters of Hollywood films like “G.I. Joe: Retaliation”, for instance, which I actually reviewed with “Home Again” and gave a slightly lower rating to.
“Escape from Babylon”, released on August 21st in the Caribbean Cinemas 8 movie theater, is the second, and apparently final, Trinidadian feature film to be released this year. Written, produced and directed by Nicholas Attin, it stars actor/recording artiste Kearn Samuel, Conrad Parris, Samara Lallo, Gregory Pollonais, Kerri Tucker and Joel Joseph (who handled the film’s fight choreography). Labelled as an action/thriller on Nick’s own film production website (arunawaycolony.com), “Escape from Babylon” tells the story of Randolph Briggs (Kearn Samuel), an average ex-cop/lone wolf who, after being kicked out of the police force, works as a graveyard-shift taxi driver. But Randolph isn’t the only loner cruising the streets. There’s also a serial killer posing as a taxi driver who stalks young women and murders them. While he still harbors the need to protect the innocent, he must first overcome his personal insecurities before he can take the law into his own hands.
Keep in mind that “Escape from Babylon” isn’t the first Trinidadian “action thriller” ever made. Director/producer/actor G. Anthony Joseph brought out the TV movie “Men of Gray” in 1990, its theatrical sequel “Men of Gray II: Flight of the Ibis” in 1996, the direct-to-DVD “Backlash” in 2006, and his second theatrical release “Contract Killers” in 2009. Personally, I wasn’t expecting Nick to re-invent the wheel or break new ground with his second feature length film (the first being 2012’s “Little Boy Blue”). But what I wanted, similar to my expectations of “Home Again”, was a Trinidadian film that can be appreciated locally, regionally and internationally. What really matters is whether or not Nick truly delivered the goods, relatively speaking. With this post, I plan to prove that ultimately, and unfortunately, he did not. (Fuck, I gave away the ending!)
RANDOM DISCLAIMER: Before I begin my review, please be aware that this is MY point-of-view, and should not be misinterpreted as a diss to the director or anyone else associated with the making of “Escape from Babylon”. I am not an official screenwriter or official film critic or legit film producer or established film director (as yet… AH HA!! ), and I’m not an all-seeing, all-knowing guru who knows EVERYTHING about great movies. Whenever I do a review on this blog, I do it from both the perspectives of someone who knows a great deal about movies and someone who truly enjoys watching movies. Also, I’m not writing from the perspective of an individual who stays clear of anything resembling “local cinema” (and believe me, I know people like that) but from someone who has supported Trinidadian film from the first day he saw “Calabash Alley” on television (You can Google search the title if my reference is unclear to you), and was inspired by a particular Trinidadian feature film (HINT: It has its own Wikipedia article) to pursue a career in local filmmaking. Finally, if you’re aware of my writing style in this blog by now, then you should expect a brutally honest review of this movie. With that being said, let’s begin.
“ESCAPE FROM BABYLON” – This is going to be long, so stay with me here. The film’s intro, which involved one of the serial killer’s victims (a woman with a bloodied face), gave me the indication that this was going to be a brutal film. The opening credit sequence, which clearly alludes to the intro to Nicolas Winding Refn’s neo-noir thriller “Drive” (right down to the 80s-influenced synth-pop song playing in the background), which saw Kearn Samuel’s character Randolph Briggs driving his taxi through the streets of Port-of-Spain, gave me the idea that this was going to be a dark, brutal film. The following scene – a flashback of a shootout between Randolph Briggs, his two partners (Conrad Parris and Joel Joseph) and a random thug gave me the indication that this was going to be an intense, dark, and brutal film. What I got however was a film that tried to tell a number of stories at once, tried too hard to be self-referential with its mimicking of visual and thematic elements from popular, and superior, HOLLYWOOD films, and was never quite clear of its overall tone and message (if any existed).
Allow me to elaborate: What I gathered from “Escape from Babylon” was that it tried to tell three stories centered on Randolph Briggs. The first deals with him trying to adjust to life outside the police force while he anticipates the moment or reason to get back into action. When he’s not cruising the streets at night, or spending valuable screen time thinking to himself in a hybrid of stream-of-consciousness and diary-like entries (he mentions a number of dates like August 31st and September 11th – Ooooookay then) rolled up into nuggets of voice-over narration, he hangs out with one of his police buddies (Conrad Parris), sits by his sick mother’s bedside at a hospital and converses with a particular woman whose name I honestly forgot (played by Kerri Tucker, who has REALLY nice eyes by the way. Wow. I forgot her name, but I remember those eyes. Fuck it, I’m a guy! Sue me!) who deals with insurance. Kearn’s conversations with Conrad and Kerri respectively, like his own voice-over narration, do little to reveal anything about the characters or move the story further. Take this scene for example: Kearn and Kerri’s characters are having lunch together. For about five minutes, they talk on and on about random shit (in one scene, they talk about favourite types of movies – REALLY?!!). How does this scene advance the story? What did I learn about these characters? Not much, except that Randolph Briggs hates horror films, but he doesn’t mind watching one with Kerri’s character. Really?
The second story deals with Randolph and the serial killer. The similarities and differences between the two characters were admittedly quite interesting. They’re both loners, they both cruise the streets looking for “passengers” and they have a fixation with their weapons (Randolph with his firearm and the serial killer with his knife). The killer converses more with his passengers than Randolph, who has to suffer through a number of unnecessary conversations. However, there’s an inconsiderable amount of time spent on the two characters in their respective vehicles. One scene, for example, which ran for no more than 10 minutes (or at least felt like it) focused on showing a woman entering the killer’s taxi, becoming fearful when she realizes she’s being taken somewhere she didn’t ask to be dropped at, waiting in the back seat (when she could’ve simply exited the fucking car and ran off! Slasher Movies 101, anyone?) while the killer exits the vehicle to “check something in the trunk”, being attacked in the back seat, and carried to a beach where she’s raped and murdered (in a non-surprising and non-disturbing manner). This story finally comes full circle (way in the third act, mind you) when Randolph meets a young prostitute (played by Samara Lallo). When she becomes the killer’s latest abductee, Randolph springs to action and confronts the bad guy…. AT LONG LAST! The outcome, like the aforementioned rape/murder, is also cliched and isn’t surprising to anyone over the age of five. Groan.
The third, and probably not least, story deals with Randolph and his motivation to become a vigilante. Far into the midpoint of the film, Randolph meets Joel Joseph’s character, who tells our hero of his decision to take the law into his own hands. Afterwards, he walks up to a businessman and his bodyguards, beats them up and guns them down in cold blood. This is the inciting incident that motivates Randolph to fight crime on his own. You would assume that the guy would go on a “Punisher”-esque one-man crusade to eliminate all sorts of criminal activities in the city. What does he do? He beats up a small gang who robbed him of his money, set to a circa-90s fighting video game theme song (For some reason, “Killer Instinct” – REMEMBER THAT SHIT?!!! – came to mind). Oh, and he stopped the serial killer. That’s it. That’s his one-man crusade. Nothing more, nothing less! Seriously?!
Like I mentioned earlier, “Escape from Babylon” references other movies. It’s okay for a filmmaker to reference a film that he/she is inspired by, but there’s a thin line between a clever reference (i.e. those that add something special and unique to a film, like the subtle references to classic zombie movies in the British horror comedy “Shaun of the Dead”) and a blatant rip-off (like the ones in this movie). Now, I completely understand “Escape from Babylon’s” references to the aforementioned “Drive” and Martin Scorsese’s neo-noir masterpiece “Taxi Driver” (also about a taxi driver seeking to rid the city of injustice by any means necessary), but was it really necessary to rip off the iconic conversation scene between Robert DeNiro and Jodie Foster? There’s a scene in the movie where Randolph converses with the young prostitute while having breakfast in a restaurant, that totally resembles De Niro and Foster’s conversation in “Taxi Driver”. Like De Niro’s character, Randolph tries to persuade the girl to stop leading a life of prostitution. While it could be viewed as a loving homage to “Taxi Driver”, it came off as forced, unnecessary and a cheap attempt at paying tribute to such a great film.
The technical aspects of “Escape from Babylon” truly reflects the film’s obviously-low budget. But even with the film’s financial and technical disadvantages, there’s hardly any effort to utilize, innovate and improvise with what’s available. Exterior night shots look grainy, dull and out-of-focus, and the interior car scenes are poorly shot (in some shots, the actors sitting in the back seat are near-indistinguishable due to heavy shadowing, which can be blamed on the cameras used in these scenes). Hand-held camerawork is used to an unbearable degree, with lots of close-ups and medium-close-ups that aren’t properly framed in each shot. Some scenes look brighter (due to possible colour correction) than others. There’s even a moment where the colour scheme changes from bright to dull in the SAME SHOT! Even by film screening standards, that is fucking UNACCEPTABLE! The sound design is far from perfect: the foley is unnaturally loud, the dialogue is poorly recorded (with many decisions made to increase the volume of the voices in post-production, so we can actually hear the breeze blowing past the microphones used in recording said voices) and the music is blaring and badly mixed. Speaking of music, the soundtrack to the film isn’t the least bit cohesive. There’s a song that sounds like an African/Indian musical hybrid that sounds completely out of place in the introduction of Samara’s character, some minimalist “psycho music” where the serial killer is preparing to stalk a victim that doesn’t even sound like actual music (more like sound effects looped in a fucking Adobe Audition project) and the fighting video game music (that sounds scrapped together from Fruity Loops…..not, FL Studio, mind you….. FRUITY LOOPS beats) that I mentioned earlier. Ultimately, it doesn’t feel like an actual score or soundtrack that one expects from a feature film, but more like random beats thrown into the film for the sake of having music.
To make matters even worse, the script is POORLY-WRITTEN. Improvisation of dialogue can be spotted easily in many scenes. Sometimes the improvisation works to add a sense of much-needed realism and humour, and sometimes they do nothing but slow the film to a molasses-like crawl. Yeah, I said molasses. The pacing is SLOW! There’s little tension, even in moments where there’s supposed to be tension (like the rape/murder scene that I mentioned earlier). The story is badly structured, with “important” plot points (like Kearn’s encounter with Joel Joseph’s character) spread apart unevenly. And it’s not quite apparent what the story is really about or what the theme is. Is it about one man’s personal redemption? Is it about his mission to stop the killer? Is it about his transition from an ex-cop to a taxi-driving vigilante? Is it about isolation? Depression? Is it about fighting for truth, justice and the Trinbagonian way? Unfortunately, these questions remained unanswered, thus underwhelming my appreciation of the film even further.
THE LAST WORD: Here’s the thing: As a Trinidadian, I am proud to see local content (far and few as they come) on the big screen. And the intention of making this content is simple: Trinidadian filmmakers want to tell great stories through film in the same way other filmmakers from other countries did decades before. And it’s easy to be influenced by the movies of Hollywood due to the big-name actors, top notch special effects, memorable music and so on. But when you separate those elements, the one thing that holds everything together is a great, or at least memorable, story. And time has to be spent to make sure that this is a story that viewers will remember and/or be entertained by. I attended a screening of “Escape from Babylon” with a few friends of mine who aren’t knowledgeable in film theory or production, but are certainly aware of what constitutes an enjoyable movie. We didn’t roll our eyeballs at the on-screen cliches, squint at the poor video quality or cringe in pain at the terrible dialogue. But we did LAUGH! Yes, ladies and gents, we laughed our motherfucking asses off – not because the movie was a comedy, but that it was unintentionally hilarious! Did previous screenings of the film involve raucous laughter as well? I don’t know, but as a director, the last thing you want is to have your audience laugh unintentionally at your film. If “Escape from Babylon” was supposed to be an “action thriller”, it definitely didn’t feel like one – since it was neither thrilling or action-packed. But with a decent, well-written script, and more attention spent on characters and story than cliched genre conventions and blatant references to classic movies (title cards from Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill Vols. 1 & 2” and “Inglourious Basterds”, anyone?), then I would’ve even forgiven the technical flaws (jarring as they were). At the end of the day, no film is perfect. And there is a lot of hard work that goes into making a film. But honestly, an audience doesn’t give a rat’s ass how long it took and how hard it was for you as a director to make a film. They are investing their time and money into YOUR film, and they expect their time’s and money’s worth. Even if it’s not high-quality content, they should still leave the theater feeling entertained. Fortunately, I found myself entertained by “Escape from Babylon” but for all the wrong reasons. It could have been a breakthrough in Trinidadian cinema, and it could have gotten more “local film naysayers” involved in our growing industry. But not even the great acting cast can save this film from buckling under the weight of its weak script and lackluster direction. According to Nick Attin himself, this is intended to be the first film of a possible trilogy. Let’s hope that at least he learns from the mistakes made with “Escape from Babylon”. And by the way, the title is WAY misleading. Who’s escaping from Babylon? Is Babylon Port-of-Spain? What makes it Babylon? And why would you escape from Babylon? How about surviving in Babylon, or hustling in Babylon? I don’t know, and it doesn’t even matter. Anyways, I’ve written enough and I’m suddenly compelled to re-install FL Stuido onto my laptop (Hmmm… I wonder why). Take my criticism as you will, and feel free to discuss.
MY RATING: 2 out of 5 stars (“I want my money back”)