Movie Review: The Red Machine

Published on November 5th, 2012 in: Current Faves, Movie Reviews, Movies, Reviews |

By Chelsea Spear

the red machine poster

In the annals of unlikely buddy teams, the portrayal of a working relationship between a rock-ribbed naval officer and a wisecracking thief seems so obvious, it’s a wonder it hasn’t been done before. Stephanie Argy and Alec Boehm’s compulsively watchable heist flick The Red Machine hinges on such a surprising bond. Set against the conflicted relationship between the US and Japan in the years before World War II, Argy and Boehm create a fascinating world.

The place is Washington, DC; the time, 1935. The Great Depression is at its height, and war between the Allies and Axis powers is over half a decade away. Cryptologists in the nation’s capitol are working to decode a series of messages sent from the Japanese consulate. Two unlikely accomplices must work closely with one another to aid in the cryptologists’ plight: Eddie Doyle (Donal Thoms-Cappello), a voluble, fast-talking safecracker, and F. Ellis Coburn (Lee Perkins), a disgraced naval officer as mysterious as his first initial. Coburn regards Doyle with silent contempt, while Doyle works to get thrown off this project by trying to get on Coburn’s last good nerve. In spite of their fractious bond, the immovable object and unstoppable force work together to create a caper that will allow them to get the goods on their opponents.

Argy and Boehm—who previously directed the newsreel spoof Gandhi at the Bat—have infused their feature with a fast-moving retro flair. They’ve staged and edited their set pieces in a manner that runs counter to modern logic. Instead of shooting for the edit, cutting in a fast, stroboscopic manner, and ramping up the music, they allow the scenes to play out in long, handheld shots. Their use of location sound instead of a score makes the action seem even more real and can make some scenes almost too suspenseful to watch.

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The directors do a great job of creating a world for their protagonists while keeping an eye on their budget. Their period locations and deployment of choice props (like the Studebaker Coburn drives in a key scene) gives the film an elegant 1930s look, as does the occasional use of video filters. (Thankfully, they also know when to leave the early 20th century details at the door. The Japanese antagonists aren’t overly exoticized or caricatured, and instead come off as real people.) The use of what looked like 30 fps video may take savvy viewers out of the story once or twice, as the motion blur in a few scenes looks like something from our side of the millennial line. However, if given the choice between this feature not existing at all and only being shot on video, the rare blurry image is a small price to pay.

All these period details would fall apart if not for strong central performances. In Perkins and Thoms-Cappello, the directorial team has those in spades. Even before opening their mouths, Thoms-Copello’s wiry frame and black Irish coloring contrast with the stocky, sallow Perkins. Perkins makes the most of his withering stares and long silences (not to mention his resemblance to former Massachusetts governor William Weld). Meanwhile, Thoms-Cappello invests Doyle with a staccato vocal treatment and an ingratiating gift for slapstick comedy, but doesn’t chew the scenery. I could have easily spent another half hour with these characters.

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Mental Slapstick Pictures draws viewers in with creative packaging. The DVD comes in a slipcase housed in a modest canvas bag with “Spy” and “Thief” pinbacks affixed to it. While an audio commentary would have been more than welcome, extras include a period-friendly flipbook diary of the film’s month-long shooting schedule and a featurette on the women’s wardrobes, as well as a few deleted scenes that had been repurposed as teaser trailers.

The Red Machine is widely available through the Mental Slapstick Pictures website. Please check the film’s website for information about future screenings.

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