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Case Number 04533: Small Claims Court

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The Debt (1999)

TLA Releasing // 1999 // 106 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // June 3rd, 2004

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All Rise...

Judge Patrick Bromley has little tolerance for botched crime dramas, and this Polish import is no exception.

Editor's Note

Our reviews of The Debt (2010) (published December 6th, 2011), The Debt (2007) (published February 29th, 2012), and The Debt (2010) (Blu-ray) (published December 5th, 2011) are also available.

The Charge

Mixing friends and business is a deadly combination.

The Case

With the breakthrough success of Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, cinema became inundated with botched crime movies—and by that, I'm referring to the plot (although, come to think of it, the films themselves were usually botched too). The stories and characters were pretty much always the same, centering on people who want money and people who hate losing it, and people who don't want to die and those who want to kill them. Most of them got it wrong, too—for every Dogs we had to suffer through five Amongst Friends; for every Usual Suspects there was a Suicide Kings.

The trend wasn't limited to just American film either, which means now on DVD we get the botched Polish crime The Debt (Dlug). Though quick to point out that its story is "based on actual events," the film plays more like a humorless Guy Ritchie (botched English crime) film. It tells the story of Adam (Robert Gonera, Street Games) and Stefan (Jacek Borcuch), two young entrepreneurs living in Warsaw. Unable to find startup capital for their Italian scooter-importing enterprise, the two seek the help of Gerard (Andrzej Chyra), a Russian with criminal ties. When they reject his less-than-desirable deal, he begins to demand money for "services rendered"—despite the fact that he hasn't really done anything to help them out. Gradually, Gerard's intimidation tactics and threats grow more violent, until eventually Adam and Stefan realize they have only one way out (no points awarded for guessing the right answer).

The only thing that really distinguishes the plot of The Debt from that of Ritchie's Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels is that its two protagonists aren't petty criminals—just average guys, in way over their heads. What the Ritchie film understood, however (as do the best films of the botched crime genre), was that in order to work dramatically, the protagonists must trigger their own predicament, whether motivated by revenge, hubris, or the ever-popular greed. It creates a sense of you-made-your-bed-now-claw-your-way-out-of-it tension, which The Debt lacks entirely. These two men are victims of the arbitrary whims of a sociopath, and while that may sound compelling as a narrative, trust me when I say it isn't. Their innocence does not compound their situation—it merely makes it maddeningly unnecessary.

Though the film tries to build towards its violent climax (hinted at during an extraneous prologue involving policemen discovering bodies), it fails to up the stakes as it progresses. Scene after scene, we are treated to basically the same exchange—Gerard wants money the boys don't have, tells them that he'll be back for even more money, and threatens both them and their loved ones (both have girlfriends, one of them pregnant) with bodily harm. Repeat. These sequences do not grow increasingly intense or terrifying as they develop—the only thing that changes is the dollar amount Gerard demands. Part of the problem is that Gonera and Borcuch, as the two leads, never seem to increase in their desperation—if they don't really seem worried, why should we be? That may be because Gerard (Chyra) never seems terribly threatening; he's certainly not physically imposing, but also doesn't carry any kind of psychological weight to pick up the slack. In a film requiring clearly drawn roles, the cast is almost totally interchangeable.

TLA Releasing brings The Debt to DVD as part of their "International Film Festival" line, designed to make World Cinema more readily available to Region 1 viewers. The film is presented in its original Polish with English subtitles and in an aspect ratio of about 1.78:1, enhanced for 16x9 playback. In addition to mistaken assumption that shooting in jittery hand-held style is the best way to infuse a film with the energy it lacks, director/co-writer Krzysztof Krauze and his cinematographer, Bartek Prokopowicz, have given the film an ice-cold look—most scenes end up blown out with what appears to be primarily natural light. It's one of the first movies I've seen that's shot on film but looks like DV; generally, you aim for the other way around. The disc replicates that look accurately, leaving skin tones extremely pale and colors totally washed out. Though the overall quality is somewhat low, that has more to do with remaining faithful to the source material than to a poor transfer. One fairly surprising (and unforgivable) oversight, however, is the inclusion of the large black dot that periodically appears in the upper right hand corner to mark the reel change—it's meant to be seen only during theatrical exhibition, not on DVD.

The audio fares better, in that it seems to have been cleaned up a bit more than the visuals and receives a great deal of assistance from English subtitles (though at times it can be difficult to distinguish which subtitles belong to which character speaking). The only extras included are a couple of bonus trailers for other films in TLA's "International Film Festival" line.

If it's Eastern European crime films you seek, there have been several better in recent memory—the original Insomnia, with Stellan Skarsgard, for one. Go ahead and skip out on The Debt.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 70

Perp Profile

Studio: TLA Releasing
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Polish)
• English
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Crime
• Drama
• Thriller

Distinguishing Marks

• Bonus Trailers


• IMDb

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