Spears, Reviewed

Luke Maxwell

Luke Maxwell is the host of the film review show, Viewfinder on 103.2 Dublin City FM. He also hosts The Movie Express Podcast, which you can find at www.movieexpress.org.


Spears, a noir-tinged thriller, tells a twisting revenge story across farflung locations: Florence, London, Berlin, and of course, Donegal. These postcard places play host to a series of betrayals as three men fall victim to the machinations of shadowy con artists.

These men are the types you’ll find in the pages of pulpy paperbacks. Seekers of trouble. Lowlifes with little to lose but everything to gain from the shady jobs they take on.

Kian (Nigel Brennan), a former social-media content reviewer who stole assets from his employer, now works as a private investigator. Cormac (Aidan O’Sullivan) is a dissident gunrunner and enforcer. Jeff (Bobby Calloway) is a catfish conman who promises romance to women on the Internet before robbing them blind.

Kian, Cormac and Jeff all suffer through their association, directly or indirectly, with Hidell (Michael Parle) a traveling swindler preying on desperate men.

Hidell hires Kian to track down a missing woman in Florence. Cormac walks into a set-up as an arms deal goes south in England. In Berlin, Jeff loses his ill-gotten fortune to his lover Rachael (Rebecca Rose Flynn), a close associate of Hidell.

These three men, left with nothing to lose, now share a common enemy in Hidell.

Spears is not a pretty film. It is cheap, consumer-grade and constrained by a low budget. And in this way, Spears is grittier and realer than a lot of its flashier genre-mates.

The city-break locations play well with this story of clandestine dealings. The world that these men inhabit is full of budget flights, cramped hotel rooms and banality. This is not a glamorous globe-trotting adventure. Instead of enjoying expensive cigars and the finest champagne, characters cover smoke alarms with cling film to eke some solace out of their dingy circumstances.

Gerard Lough does triple duty as director, writer and cinematographer on Spears. It’s a passion project made with enthusiasm and a devil-may-care attitude. Lough shoots what he can where he can to make the film he wants to make.

See, for example, the film’s street scenes in Florence, Berlin and London, which have a home-movie quality to them. There’s a game of hide and seek going on with the actors as the camera keeps its distance. We feel part of the pursuit and intrigue, as much a face in the crowd as Kian and his target. This may be a happy accident of not having a filming permit or an intentional decision on Lough’s part, but it speaks to the director’s can-do attitude, and the effect is cohesive.

At times, the action almost seems incidental as we pan from landmarks and architectural detailing to the actors milling about busy European streets. Kian wears an authentically touristy look, shades and a black T-shirt. His costuming isn’t quite the sweat-stained suit of Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past, but the hazy motivations and uncertainty around the investigation is comparable.

The hard-boiled detective vibe is jeopardised, however, whenever Brennan is featured in extended close-ups or dialogue scenes. He handles the material well enough but his boyish looks clash with the words coming out of his mouth. Brennan is too fresh-faced to be playing a character with Kian’s background. But the film glosses over this fact, its own internal logic seeing Kian as a classic gumshoe.

Cormac and Jeff prove more convincing in their characterisations. Cormac looks the part: weathered, slightly out of shape, but still tough. O’Sullivan plays him as a smart-arse quip machine. When paired with Jeff, as he is for most of the back half of the film, sparks fly.

Calloway’s performance as Jeff is very deliberate. Jeff is a methodical kind of guy. He thinks before he speaks and we have to sit and watch the gears spin. It comes off awkward at first but ultimately works as a tension-builder for a series of extended phone-call showdowns toward the end of the picture.

Parle’s Hidell is captivating as well. He’s a very strange villain. One of Hidell’s confidence scams involves the financing of a movie that’s going to be shot in Donegal. Funny asides like this, or, Hidell’s unparalleled control over drones, are the kind of eccentricities that round out the character.

Parle is always watchable and is best served when the material veers toward unhinged. Some good phone exchanges between Jeff and Hidell later in the film highlight the strength of bringing together two unusual screen presences. These men are not your typical movie stars, and so they give atypical and fascinating performances.

Spears is messy but some uneven performances, a flabby script, and a handful of lacking action sequences fade into the background because Lough gets so many other elements right. In one sequence Jeff remarks of his own writing: “It’s not David Mamet.” Spears’ script isn’t Mamet either, not obviously anyway, but there is a commitment to similar “fun and games” that we see throughout Mamet’s filmography. Hidell’s Donegal movie scheme isn’t far off of something from House of Games or The Spanish Prisoner.

It’s that kooky, “anything goes” energy that makes Spears something remarkable, flaws and all.

Spears is in cinemas from 18 February.

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Luke Maxwell: Luke Maxwell is the host of the film review show, Viewfinder on 103.2 Dublin City FM. He also hosts The Movie Express Podcast, which you can find at www.movieexpress.org.

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