The savage Judge Nicholas Sylvain, afraid of neither man nor beast, sinks his claws into this British movie about four doers of dastardly deeds, or as those wacky Brits call them, criminals.
Femme fatale. Con man. Hit man. Loan shark. Who's the real ringmaster?
Another British gangster film! What, you say you weren't aware of this sub-genre? Well, here comes the latest installment, with a cast of conniving criminals and so many twists and turns that you'll be a pretzel in no time. Thanks to the folks at Universal, a film you likely never heard of last year gets a quality presentation and a fair set of extra content.
Facts of the Case
The story of Circus is so convoluted that a brief summary can only do it scant justice, so be forewarned. Leo (John Hannah) and Lily (Famke Janssen) are a married team of "con men," Bruno (Brian Conley) is a sadistic businessman/crime boss, Caspar (Ian Burfield) is Bruno's dimmer brother, Elmo (Fred Ward) is a crude American hit-man, Julius (Peter Stormare) is a nerdy, brilliant accountant, Moose (Tom 'Tiny' Lister Jr.) is a hulking enforcer for Bruno, and Troy (Eddie Izzard) is a very focused loan shark. You think that's a lot of names just thrown at you? Well, that gets you warmed up for the plot.
Thanks to the embezzlement of his former accountant, Bruno owes two million quid (that's two million pounds to us Yanks) to the Inland Revenue (the British tax-man). To make matters worse, his casino in Manchester runs into a spot of trouble with a high-roller and a corrupt croupier. Bruno wants Leo to take control of the casino, which is merely a pretext to get him out of the way and set-up Lily to take the fall for the Inland Revenue fiasco. Meanwhile, Leo is continually threatened with grievous bodily harm by Troy, thanks to Leo's bad luck with horses, cards and gambling in general. Leo swears to Lily that he's got a plan to net a big windfall and let them both retire in luxury, but it seems that Lily might have different plans when she conspires with Bruno. Bruno, in turn, is hatching a nefarious plot against Lily and Leo with his new accountant, Julius.
Furthermore, Moose's mistress, Gloria (Amanda Donohoe), is missing, and that has left Moose distraught and at wits end. He wants Leo to look for Gloria, which gets messy when Bruno tells him that Leo has killed Gloria! Not only must Leo evade Moose, but when Caspar hires Elmo to kill him, Leo has a lot of dodging to do! From moment to moment, everyone is lying about something, and matters change so quickly it will make your head spin. Who lives, who dies, who cons, who is conned, all questions are (eventually) answered.
By the looks of things, Circus was green-lit by studio suits eager to cash in upon the breakout success of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Nice idea, but while Guy Ritchie may have continued his modest success with Snatch, the suits in charge of Circus wound up with a serviceable but over-eager film that can only aspire to success. Apparently a resounding bust at the U.K. box office, Circus was hardly even screened in the United States, and now limps onto home video looking for the audience it never found.
On paper, Circus does appear a promising venture. The director and even more so the writer may be relative unknowns, but the cast has some serious talent to offer. John Hannah (Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Mummy) has flawed, endearing charm and wit, Famke Janssen (GoldenEye, X-Men) smolders with dangerous sensuality, and TV actor Brian Conley shows dramatic steel as a smiling, quietly intimidating, and sadistic crime lord. While Eddie Izzard (Velvet Goldmine, Mystery Men) tones down his penchant for outrageousness, he still has such a delicious way of delivering his lines! The supporting cast, including Peter Stormare (Fargo, The Lost World: Jurassic Park) and Tom 'Tiny' Lister (The Fifth Element) have their moments to shine, but with such a wide cast, short running time, and rapid-fire plot, all of the actors are denied enough room to flex their respective acting muscles and really show off their abilities.
The anamorphic widescreen transfer is overall a good effort. Good color saturation, sharpness, and a nearly clean print are quite commendable. An early scene with a very tight shot of Famke Janssen's face shows every hair and bead of moisture—quite impressive! Less impressive are some dark scenes, usually with smoke or heavy red lighting, where the picture gets quite noisy/grainy in a most distracting fashion.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is nearly first-rate. From the energetic beat of the opening credits, the sound of Circus is lively, groovy, and pleasing from the highs to the crisp lows. Sudden and effective use of the rear surrounds should have you jumping. In general, the front and rear split channels are well used to create an active and immersive sound, with occasional support from your subwoofer. What keeps the track from top marks is the mixing of the dialogue. It can be hard enough to follow foreign accents, but that simple task gets much harder when you have to choose between straining for words and getting blown out of your seat when action occurs!
The audio commentary by co-producer James Gibb and writer David Logan is no better than average. When I get a commentary track, I always want some participation by the director, given that it is his creative voice that is the unifying vision in the development of a film. I am disappointed here, for this duo never answer some of the questions about why certain decisions were made, nor do they offer the technical details that film buffs want. The track could have done with a competent moderator, in order to limit the "describe what is on the screen" or the "what do the characters know" disease. A bit boring in the end, and I don't often say that about commentary tracks.
The package of deleted scenes is of somewhat rough quality, but as always, a welcome bonus. Unfortunately, the brief six-minute featurette is mere production fluff. Three theatrical trailers for Circus, similar Snatch, and quite dissimilar Girlfight as well as cursory talent files finish off the extras.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As you might infer from my plot summary, Circus is the sort of film you have to watch very, very closely. Now, I don't mind a closely scripted story, but not when I have to concentrate so much on the story that I barely have time to appreciate the scenery, cinematography, and the like. This twist-a-minute style of writing sucks a lot of oxygen from the rest of the film, leaving little for a casual viewer. Sometimes less is indeed more, and Circus proves this truism.
Deleted scenes are rapidly becoming my favorite extra content, but particularly when they include optional director commentary. Sometimes you can figure out why a scene was dropped, but generally you can only speculate. Sadly, the deleted scenes for Circus are sans commentary, which is more painful when the feature has its own commentary (which is also sans director!). A small criticism, but one I would hope studios will remedy as the format continues to grow.
I must also point out that the back of the box claims Circus has English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean and Thai subtitles, but the disc includes only English and French subtitles. Shame on Columbia for misrepresenting disc contents!
If you like a crime drama crammed end to end with lies layered upon half-truths upon treachery, or you have a soft spot for accents of the British sort, then Circus is worth a look. Go ahead and try a rental, but don't expect Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs, and purchase ($30 retail) only after seeing it first.
A mildly entertaining flick, Circus is guilty merely of an excessively duplicitous plot, whereas Columbia is fined a token amount for their subtitle misdemeanor. Court is adjourned!
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