Well, if you told Judge Dan Mancini you were drowning, he would not lend a hand.
Some secrets should stay hidden forever.
Writer-director Brendan Foley's The Riddle is a frustrating failure. It shows signs of great intelligence, but meanders through a labyrinthine plot only to land on a you-must-be-joking climax that not only finds our heroes failing to intervene in a murder happening just feet in front of them, but also reveals that a major character is, apparently, one of the living dead. I'm not exaggerating. The Riddle might have been a thrilling little indie entertainment had Foley employed a writing partner to help him refine his screenplay's almost too methodical structure, and push him to craft a real ending instead of the cop-out we're ultimately given.
The Riddle tells the tale of Mike Sullivan (Vinnie Jones, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels), a London sports journalist with ambitions to take on a crime beat but a boss (Vanessa Redgrave, The Bostonians) who doesn't take him seriously. When the riddle-obsessed owner of his neighborhood pub is brutally murdered, Sullivan teams with an attractive police press liaison (Julie Cox, Children of Dune) to solve the crime. They soon find an ally in a local vagrant (Derek Jacobi, I, Claudius) to whom the deceased was often kind. Things turn deadly when their investigation uncovers underhanded deals by a well-connected land developer and a high-profile politician.
Meanwhile, Sullivan discovers that his dead friend had found a hand-written manuscript of an unpublished novel by Charles Dickens called The Riddle in the basement of her pub just before her death. As Sullivan reads the book, we flash back in time to Dickens (Jacobi again) reciting the tale of a man whose devotion to his sick wife and guilt over the death of his sister-in-law put him on the bad side of a corrupt constable.
The relationship between The Riddle's modern day crime story and its presentation of a 19th-century literary pastiche is the riddle the viewer tries to tease out across the film's two-hour run. Unfortunately, the final answer is so contrived and disappointing one wonders why Foley wasted our time with the entire Dickens subplot in the first place. His movie would be shorter, tighter, and more coherent (though admittedly also more mundane and derivative) without it. I honestly can't tell whether Foley painted himself into a storyline corner and was too befuddled or lazy to find a reasonable way out, or whether he thought it was precociously artful to construct a bifurcated genre piece, then link the two halves of his movie by theme and theme alone, purposely denying the audience the satisfaction crime films typically offer as their various plot strands snap together into a tightly structured final reveal. His motives are irrelevant. The movie is a two-hour slog toward an ending that makes you want to pull your hair out.
The sad thing is that The Riddles's crime elements are reasonably well written, and the performances are strong. It's especially entertaining to see Vinnie Jones play a character who isn't a lout, gangster, hooligan, or wall-smashing supervillain. He does fine work as a decent, regular Joe whose good will and modest ambitions lead him into trouble. Redgrave's role is small but potent. And Jacobi is, well, Jacobi, which is to say erudite, charming, and perfectly at ease in both of his roles.
The movie looks quite good on DVD. The 1.78:1 transfer—enhanced for widescreen displays—offers natural colors and deep blacks. Digital artifacts are minimal. A couple scenes show some light wear and tear—surprising for a movie that's only a year old, but only slightly distracting.
The Dolby 5.1 surround audio track is more impressive than the video transfer. For a low-budget movie, The Riddle's soundtrack is rich and immersive. Effects and music use the entire soundstage. The mix is dynamic but tasteful. It's not reference quality, but it's extremely good considering this isn't an action movie.
The only extra is a theatrical trailer for the film.
The Riddle is a movie constructed out of two smaller movies, both of which have lousy endings. Brendan Foley shows such promise as both a writer and a director that I wish I could report that the movie is a near miss. Unfortunately, it misses the mark by a wide berth. "Some secrets should stay hidden forever" turns out to be a bad slogan for a crime flick.
Guilty as charged.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
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