Though revenge may indeed be a dish best served cold, Judge Bill Gibron senses some significant heat from this amiable, independent crime drama.
4 Cops. 20 Problems. 1 Solution.
Atlanta 2004. Crime is at an all-time high, with drug-related murders staining the city's reputation as a sophisticated Southern metropolis. When his partner is killed during a bust gone bad, Detective Hughes hits on a vengeful, vigilante idea. When he's egged on by tripwire buddy cop Sean Kietel, the pair comes up with a plan. They will kill 20 of the city's leading pushers and dealers, creating a criminal chain reaction within the narcotics racket. With these 20 deaths, they hope to make a major dent in the oppressive violence and senseless slaughter that has become an everyday occurrence in their town. Thanks to the conspiratorial support of fellow officers Antwan Tibbs and Antonio Melendez, our quartet vows to see this project through to the end, no matter what the cost. Unfortunately, mob bigwig Sol sees through the plan and hires a psychotic hit man to eliminate the death squad, one gruesome slaying at a time. If they're not careful, these cavalier cops may find that there will be more than 20 Funerals at the end of their deadly tour of duty. There could be 24…or even more.
Preposterous and problematic, but occasionally very powerful, Anghus Houvouras's 20 Funerals is a low-budget crime film with big-budget ambitions. Though it often smacks of those incredibly lame shoot-'em-ups made by rappers with Hollywood hubris in their eyes, this far more measured, moody piece wants to discuss the moral as well as the…messier implications of street crime and vigilantism. Gathering together a collection of competent actors and relying on the glorified "gangsta" leanings of the hip-hop community, Houvouras creates a realistic aura of crime and criminality. Then he turns on the bloodletting to give the movie the mandatory indie kick. The result is something halfway between Tarantino and the myriad of minor league direct-to-cable crap that passes itself off as professional filmmaking in the discount DVD scene. Certainly there are elements that just don't work (the introduction during the last act of a mentally unhinged hit man with a penchant for chainsaws) and others that appear like human product placement (cameos by Outkast's Big Boi and the likeable Li'l Jon), but overall, the movie achieves its aims and never tries to overpower us with pretension or preaching.
It is hard to get a handle on what Houvouras is saying with this payback picture. If it's that cops can't keep up with the oncoming tidal waves of violence enveloping society, he argues his point in a very obvious way. As he depicts it, Atlanta is a Wild West enclave, similar in its criminal situation to the '80s Miami depicted in Scarface. Everyone is corrupt from the district attorney to the mayor himself, and fellow police officers are not to be trusted. The chief chafes when an internal affairs probe is threatened, suggesting that he has been under the glare of such public shame and disgrace before. Yet we are supposed to root for these outlaw officers, to champion their change of legal skin. As they blow away their intended victims (and the novelty of a post-production number is offered at the bottom of the screen), nothing really resonates. These are bad guys getting whacked and the policemen are just indistinct icons. Mark Mench does the same delicate job of balancing evil with likeability that he achieved in baseball film Ball of Wax, and DJ Naylor as lead hero Hughes is a tattooed ball of brawn whose bodybuilder brazenness could use a little backstory. Indeed, 20 Funerals often feels like a severely edited endeavor. At only 76 minutes, there was plenty of time for expanding the narrative and rounding out the characters.
Still, this is a decent little diversion, a movie that impresses with how well it understands its limits and its liabilities. As a result, it downplays its problems and emphasizes the assets it has, creating something that, while not a classic, manages to carry the cinematic day. From a technical standpoint, the DVD is presented in a non-anamorphic widescreen transfer that has a minor problem with grain (especially when the scenes go dark) and a confusing compositional style. Houvouras needs to work on his framing, since we sometimes miss important details in his awkward, off-kilter shots. On the sound side, the disc presents the movie's rap attack soundtrack in open, ambient Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix. The subwoofer is awakened with big, bombastic beats while the dialogue remains, for the most part, clear and easy to understand.
As for extras, Koch Vision gives us a couple of interesting additions. Along with videos (for the Konkrete "joint" "What You Wanna Do?") and trailers, we get a photo gallery and a selection of behind-the-scenes footage. We learn that, while it was set in Atlanta, the movie was made in Wilmington, N.C. (with side trips to Miami and the Peachtree place along the way). We see how some of the effects were achieved and watch Houvouras direct his actors in the fine art of falling and fighting. Overall, the bonus features are fine, giving context to the creation of this project. If you go in expecting something just slightly above average, and don't get your hopes up to high for a deconstruction or reimagining of the crime thriller, you'll really enjoy 20 Funerals. Unlike many low-budget films, this effort shows promise, not problems, for everyone involved. DJ Naylor and Mark Mench are actors to watch, and if he ever gets his game totally together, Anghus Houvouras could be a genuine journeyman filmmaker. 20 Funerals may merely be a resume builder, but there's more here than future possibilities. It is a thoroughly watchable genre offering.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
• Behind the Scenes Featurette
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