Judge Gordon Sullivan gets this picture's message: Don't stop for a latte after a payroll heist.
4 Robbers, 2 Killers, and Way Too Many Guns.
The heist film has been a staple of cinema for decades, with the hostage film following closely behind, and recent successes like Inside Man have shown that the genres are far from dead. Part of the reason for its continued success has something to do with the fact that the premise is fairly simple: all a filmmaker needs is a couple of guns, a couple of hostages, and a location they can convincingly rob. This simplicity makes it an obvious genre for lower-budget features, like Living & Dying from HBO films. Like many successful hostage films, Living & Dying tries to spice up the old formula with some twists and turns, but never quite provides the audience with anything new.
Facts of the Case
During a routine payroll heist, the cops appear ahead of schedule, forcing robbers Sam (Edward Furlong, Brainscan) and Nadia (Bai Ling, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow) into a nearby café. Little do they know that two psychopaths are already in the café. Once they notice the money, they turn the tables and hold the robbers hostage. Meanwhile, as the police presence increases, ATF agent Lind (Michael Madsen, Reservoir Dogs) is called in to take over negotiations from local detective Devlin (Arnold Vosloo, The Mummy). As expected, negotiations break down and people start to die, inside and outside the café.
Well-established genres are an effective way to make money by tapping into an established market. They also serve as an excellent stepping stone to mainstream recognition for the lower-budget filmmaker. Looking at the work of director Jon Keeyes, he's well aware of the power of genre work, having established himself with a number of horror features, including American Nightmare with Debbie Rochon, and Suburban Nightmare with Troma stalwart Trent Haaga (who also makes an appearance here as an unhinged psycho). With Living & Dying Keeyes gives us his version of the hostage/heist film instead of his usual horror fare. While his take on the genre has merit, the execution is off the mark.
The major failure of the film is a lack of balance in the story. It wants to be both a tense hostage film, and a slam-bang action flick. One requires a minute attention to details that slowly ratchets up the tension as we get to know (and care for) all the players involved. The other requires a fast pace, big movements, and an ability to paint characters quickly to make room for action set-pieces. These two impulses are constantly working at cross-purposes throughout Living & Dying, so that the action can't get big enough to be interesting because the director cuts to the hostages, but the hostages don't always seem in danger because the film keeps cutting to the "action" elsewhere.
The film's tagline offers "way too many guns" in the picture, which is a bit of an overstatement, but this is still a fairly violent film. Crooks, cops, and innocent bystanders get killed with aplomb. However, one of the scenes sticks out like a sore thumb. A newswoman is invited to take a look inside, but when she sneaks in a second camera to get a look at the criminals, the psychos decide that it's fitting punishment to rape her in front of her camera. The scene is obviously trying to up the emotional stakes of the film and show just how crazy the bad guys are, but it's so over-the-top and brutal that it spoils the rest of the film. It's like somebody sliced a scene from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer into The Inside Man. The tone of the scene is so dark and violent that it doesn't mesh with the rest of the slightly goofy, exaggerated violence of the rest of the film.
Rape scene aside, the rest of Living & Dying works much better as a comedy. Edward Furlong goes through the entire film looking like he's got a secret stash of goofy pills. Michael Madsen phones in his best Michael Madsen impression. Arnold Vosloo acts like he's in another cop movie that actually has some good dialogue. Trent Haaga generally looks goofy and does his best to seem coked out. The script has a few good ideas, but the surprises aren't that surprising and the dialogue is generally sub-par. The final shootout is supposed to be the climax, but it's so poorly edited it's often difficult to determine what's going on. Keeyes tries to throw in some stuff about "the haves" versus "the have-nots" by giving Sam and Nadia a good reason for their heist, but even this stab at credibility comes off as laughable.
The DVD is a fair, if unspectacular, presentation of the film. The transfer isn't bad, but the film looks a little lifeless. Part of that may be the low budget origins of the film, but the whole affair looks pretty drab. The audio fares slightly better, with a good balance of dialogue and effects, but the track didn't shine.
HBO gives us two substantial extras for Living and Dying, a commentary and a making-of documentary. Director Jon Keeyes provides an effective commentary for the movie, describing his working methods, as well as those of the cast and crew. He always had some info to share, as he has obviously spent a lot of time with the film. Although I disagree with him about the overall effectiveness of the film, he still has some interesting insights. The making-of documentary "A Day in the Life of Living & Dying" spends 13 minutes with the cast and crew, going over the basics of production. It's nothing special, but worth watching if you enjoyed the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If your expectations are low, and you can overlook the violence, you could do worse than watch Living & Dying. Lovers of Michael Madsen might find the film worth watching just for his performance.
Ultimately, Living & Dying doesn't work as a hostage film or as an action flick. By trying to keep a foot in both worlds, the film will likely alienate fans of both genres. It's not a horrible film, but it's not great, either, which makes it pretty forgettable.
Living & Dying is found guilty of mediocrity.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Director Jon Keeyes
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