Elvis Costello once said that the wages of sin are an expensive infection. After seeing this modest independent action movie, Judge Bill Gibron couldn't disagree more.
Decent Indie Effort from a Director to Watch
When a pair of cops is killed during a drug sting gone bad, local mobster Eric Constantine smells a rat in his organization. Suddenly, all eyes turn toward humble hitman Johnny Trigger (writer/director Nathyn Brendan Masters). Of course, what they don't know is that Trigger is indeed a policeman named Nathan Matthews. Deep undercover and unable to trust anyone, Matthews senses he's in trouble. After befriending a hooker who has damning evidence of Constantine's murderous activities, our hero must find some kind of help from inside the department. Only problem is, all of his fellow officers appear to be on the take. When the Asian Mafia learns of Constantine's desire to take over all the illegal activity in Chicago, they step up their efforts to destroy his gang. Eventually Constantine places a bounty on Matthews's head, encouraging a legion of professional assassins to gun for our anti-crime crusader. Instead of running, Matthews decides to fight back. He enlists his prostitute friend and uses his amazing knowledge of martial arts to become a one-man payback machine, hoping to cash in the Wages of Sin he's been collecting once and for all.
It would really be interesting to see what outsider filmmaker Nathyn Brendan Masters could do with a professional cast and crew. Here's a wannabe action auteur completely and utterly stifled by the amateur elements available to him. Truthfully, one can't blame the man for trying. He does the best he can with technologically unsound video and audio equipment, ham actors, found locations, and a mountain of underfunding logistical problems, and still manages to make something that's more or less watchable. Driven by a desire to be both Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino, and throwing in just a little Matrix martial artistry for good measure, Masters creates an overcomplicated chopsocky crime drama with too many characters, way too much dialogue, and a narrative that wraps around itself over and over again. Before long, we can see Masters strangling his own ambitions, dulling the edge he originally sought in order to simply get his project completed. Sure, he makes a few near-fatal errors along the way (killing off a clever character, forgetting to backfill major plot holes), but in a digital entertainment universe where everyone and their drunk uncle can whip out a camcorder and record a backyard epic, Masters is an outsider anomaly—he's a self-generated artist with a lot of actual potential.
Granted, right now he's riding on the creative coattails of far more famous directors. You can see it in the several trick shots and filmic beats he attempts. Odd angles, fast-forward focus pulling, hyperactive jump cuts—these are part of Wages of Sin's familiar visual arsenal and, for the most part, they work. Not like Masters intends them to, obviously. He'd like this gunplay opera to resemble Michael Bay meshed with The Wachowski Brothers. Instead, he gives us just enough of a hint at both to carry us across to the next unintentional "homage." Similarly, he wants his dialogue to crackle with the kind of overly ironic smugness that's become a signature of the genre. Sometimes he manages. Other times, such as when a crime boss applies a rather lame mixed metaphor before killing a couple, it's laugh-out-loud lame. Masters makes up for it in narrative drive, though. One thing that other homemade movie makers can't seem to avoid is that "nothing better to view" variable, the decision to use whatever footage was shot because—well, because you have to fill the running time. As a director, Masters makes the most of his material, pushing the storyline forward even if we aren't quite sure why it's going in this direction and what we're supposed to find once we arrive.
If anything, it's the performances that complicate this film. On the fringes, Felicia Danisor is amazing as Jazz, a foul-mouthed foreign firecracker that treats her job as a hooker with as much self-deprecating ridicule as domineering respect. Her non-PC pronouncements and accented slang are absolutely wonderfully. She's easily the most fully rounded character in the film and, when she exits, we more than miss her. On the other hand, there's not much to champion in CiCi Foster's unhappy whore Teresa. Her onscreen personality is dimly constructed, and we never really sympathize with her plight. Among the crime figures, no one really stands out—and most of this is Masters's fault. He is so busy making them interchangeable cogs in his kung fu fighting dynamic that we never get to know (or even acknowledge) them. And let's not even discuss Michael MacRae as head baddie Eric Constantine. While he's got the look of a demented drug dealer, he sounds like an insurance salesman pushing term life policies. He's just not convincingly evil. That just leaves Masters as our heroic lead, and he trips as much as he thrives. In the mano-y-mano department, this director can hold his own. The fights tend to look like outtakes from a remake of Dolemite/The Human Tornado, yet there's enough believability there to keep us connected. But Masters lacks a powerful presence onscreen. He comes across as calm instead of commanding, and only his introspective moments with a Bible in his hand appear genuine or real.
Still, for anyone who's suffered through the Super VHS vomit of some basement-dwelling dimwit, Wages of Sin is remarkably sound. Nathyn Brendan Masters is a competent creative force hampered by elements currently outside his pecuniary control. True, he muddles up his movie with one too many monochrome flashback sequences and there's an over-reliance on subwoofer shifting hip-hop as a means of musical underscoring, but in comparison to other similarly styled efforts, this is one "on the fly" film that basically achieves its modest goals. Of course, Masters would probably disagree. Certainly he sees this drug dealing, back-stabbing, double-crossing bullet ballet as the culmination of everything he's ever dreamed about regarding directing. He would defend the choice of actors, the frequent lapses in script security, and handheld framing and camera compositions. Unlike other posturing motion-picture pariahs, however, Masters has "the skills." Whether they will be capable of paying "the bills" or not is another story all together. At least he has a chance of doing so. Wages of Sin confirms it.
Offered as part of a two-disc special edition release, Wages of Sin does have some minor (and one major) technological issues. Visually, Masters manages an interesting image, but the lackluster non-anamorphic letterboxed transfer won't impress home theater aficionados. Aside from missing the 16x9 element, the print is dark and muddy, and frequently victim to standard DAT defects (whiting out, flaring). Though Chicago is referenced several times in the story, you'd never know the movie was made there. The lack of locational certainty also undermines the visuals. But the sound circumstances are even worse. There are several sequences in this film where dialogue is mumbled, missing, or otherwise indistinguishable from the ambient noise flooding the background. Maybe Masters didn't believe in post-production ADR, but there are key scenes that could surely use a rerecord. As for added content, we are treated to a collection of trailers, a few behind-the-scenes featurettes (Masters directing and/or choreographing fight scenes), and an interview with actress CiCi Foster. This material is vaguely interesting, but not enough to really hold your attention.
Usually, after watching the latest uninspired underground opus, you're convinced the individual responsible has no future in film. Waste Management, perhaps. Happily, this is not the case with Nathyn Brendan Masters. His cast and crew may let him down, but he's got potential. Let's hope that, next time, he really gets to show it.
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