Sunday, May 15, 2016

RATTLE THE CAGE (Zinzana, 2015)

For the first time in a long while I've created a new country label. Majid al-Ansari's thriller apparently is the first widely circulated movie, thanks to Netflix, produced in the United Arab Emirates. Many observers are impressed by the novelty of a crime thriller from that source. What they seem to be impressed by, and what actually depresses me somewhat, is that al-Ansari and his writers have made a slickly generic picture that could have been made just about anywhere on Earth. Zinzana is a rather familiar seeming Tarantinian chamber piece in the manner of Reservoir Dogs, featuring violence and badassery in a single location. This time it's a small-town police station in an unnamed Middle Eastern country -- apparently a still-secular one with female police officers in modern dress. The story is pulp simple: a prisoner is being transferred to this small-town station, but his brother (Ali Suliman), apparently a bigger, badder, crazier criminal, plans to free him by taking over the place and impersonating the sherif, thus taking custody of his kin without a struggle -- after killing the sherif beforehand, that is.


Something complicates the master plan: somebody actually gets arrested. Talal (Saleh Bakri), trying to salvage his marriage, got into a fight at a hotel and was nabbed for drunk and disorderly. It takes him forever to get the sherif to let him make a phone call, only to have his estranged wife refuse to speak to him. Soon afterward Dabaan, the master criminal, arrives and stabs the sherif to death through the ear. Since it would be too much trouble to kill Talal, Dabaan tries to get him to cooperate, or at least to not make waves. He gains leverage over Talal in two ways. First, he uses the landline phone's callback feature to learn the identity of Talal's wife. Second, another officer, the asthmatic, out-of-shape, good-natured Aida (Yasa), reports for secretarial duty. To his credit, Dabaan doesn't instantly try to kill her. Instead, he goes out of his way, and over the top, to flatter and flirt with her, to distract her from any questions about his identity. Yet his ability to kill her at any time is an inducement for Talal to cooperate, however passively. Realistically, however, Talal knows that this madman will have to cover his trail in a way that leaves no one alive. In particular, he knows he doesn't stand a chance, since Dabaan's endgame is to burn the station down with Talal inside, to let investigators assume that the charred body in the cell is Dabaan's brother. To prevent further killing, not to mention save himself, Talal will somehow have to free himself from the maniac holding the key to his cell.


Suliman sinks the film for me with his bombastic, cartoonish performance as Dabaan. Al-Ansari indulges Suliman to ridiculous extremes while indulging himself with pompous overhead shots of the villain in full arms-outstretched crowing glory. To make the Tarantino influence even more obvious, al-Ansari even has Suliman dance menacingly to pop music on the radio a la Michael Madsen in Reservoir Dogs. And then he goes to another camp level by staging a comic dance number with an unctuous Suliman and a ponderous Yasa. If anyone was hoping for a realistic portrait of crime and law enforcement in the Arab world, that scene tramples their hopes once and for all. I suppose there's a method to the director and actor's madness, however, since it does make you increasingly eager for Talal to turn the tables on Dabaan as violently as possible. It is satisfying to see Talal take the offensive, simply because Dabaan had become so insufferable, and I was happily surprised to see the film end on an anticlimactic note when I was expecting it to end Die Hard style with Yasa in the Reginald VelJohnson role of last-second rescuer. Ultimately, alas, Rattle the Cage is less dumb fun than just dumb, and not even dumb in any redemptively unique, culturally particular way. You could remake a story like this anywhere, or you could believe it was a remake of a story from elsewhere.  That's not a good impression for an aspiring national cinema to make.

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