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Ordinary Decent Criminal

Icon Entertainment/20th Century Fox Home Entertainment . R4 . COLOR . 90 mins . MA15+ . PAL

  Feature
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This is a revised and updated version of a review of the rental-only edition of this disc, originally published in April 2001.

The rush of crime movies from the general direction of England over the last few years may have some people thinking that this particular part of the world has turned into the Quentin Tarantino fan club - and needless to say, Hollywood was always going to want in on the action, even if the action was going to be set in Ireland rather than England. And that’s probably why Ordinary Decent Criminal got made, and more particularly why this Irish-produced movie stars two Americans in the lead roles.

Very, very loosely based on the story of Irish gangster Martin Cahill (previously filmed, much more seriously, by director John Boorman as The General), Ordinary Decent Criminal borrows heavily from Cahill’s story but shies away from claiming to be a true story in its own right - indeed, the lead character has been renamed as Michael Lynch - and is far less concerned with either reality or seriousness.

Kevin Spacey plays Lynch, a cheeky, clever but somewhat old-fashioned and moral criminal, who’s married to a woman named Christine (Linda Fiorentino) while also carrying on a de facto relationship with her sister Lisa (Helen Baxendale, who many will remember from the TV sitcom Friends). Since an incident many years beforehand when he and his family witnessed their entire housing block being trashed and destroyed by a team of Irish police (the Garda) he has had little respect for the authorities and become a man of his own (not particularly legal) means. He and his gang commit robberies and heists and always get away with it, thanks to both Lynch’s cleverness and his connections with the right people. But the Garda’s patience is pushed to the limit when Lynch and his friends steal a hugely valuable painting from an art gallery, a feat that leaves the authorities bemused and embarrassed. With the IRA also peripherally involved, the net begins to close around Lynch, who’ll need to be more clever than usual to escape being sent to jail for a long, long time…

While most films in this genre ask us to feel empathy for people who do reprehensible things, Ordinary Decent Criminal leaves us in no doubt, right from the start, about its protagonist’s morality. Lynch is a man who loves his family, who is loyal to his friends but fair with his enemies. He’s a curious combination of mischief and honour, and while he spends the entire time breaking the law, we’re never in any doubt that he’s the Good Guy in this story. Indeed, one suspects that the main reason this story’s origins in the real-life tale of Martin Cahill are not credited is simply because so many substantial liberties have been taken with both the man and his deeds. But that’s not the point here. Made with the US market firmly in mind, Ordinary Decent Criminal is intended as a fun romp - and in that it succeeds admirably, recovering from a muddled first half hour to deliver a lightweight but enjoyable story, with Spacey’s winning performance deserving no small credit.

Spacey manages a reasonable Irish accent (though it won’t fool many Irish people) while Fiorentino fares somewhat worse - but considering that these two are Americans, it’s a better effort than usual. The mostly local supporting cast are excellent, and seem to be having a great time, but what makes the whole thing work in the end is Spacey’s effortless charm and acting skill. It’s important not to look at this film as any kind of biography, though - it’s simply a no-brainer romp with a knowing wit, skilfully directed.

  Video
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Ordinary Decent Criminal was released as a rental-only title by Fox way back in April 2001, yet it’s taken until now for the title to show up as a sell-through release - making the so-called “rental window” on this one a remarkable 16 months. And those who were waiting in anticipation of a retail version of the disc that presents this film in its theatrical aspect ratio can now duly feel ripped off; not only is this the same full-frame transfer as the rental disc, it’s from the very same master - in fact, it is the rental disc! Quite why Fox has stalled for over a year only to foist a bare-bones product on patient region-code-abiding customers is a mystery, but we suspect the fact that the film was made by Icon Productions, who just very noisily signed a deal with Warner Home Video, might have something to do with this offloading of old stock.

If you’re happy to put up with a mangled aspect ratio - or prefer it that way - you’ll be happy enough with this transfer of the film. While obviously sourced from exactly the same transfer used for VHS and television, the added clarity, definition and colour resolution of DVD ensure that this looks perfectly lovely on screen, with vibrant and well-rendered colours and plenty of detail. Occasionally contrast is a problem, with some scenes shot in low light seeming a little washed out; these problems, though, look most likely to have existed on the original negative - and it’s not unusual for contrast to become problematic when shooting film in low light.

The only disc-induced visual problem found throughout the film was the semi-regular appearance of aliasing, though never to such an extent that it’ll bother most people. MPEG compression on this single-layered DVD was close enough to perfect to make almost everyone perfectly happy.

This film was shot in Super 35 and shown theatrically at a “scope” aspect ratio of 2.35:1, and obviously this full-frame version doesn’t come close to recreating the cinema experience. The Super 35 format, though, allows for transfer to full-frame video with added image at the top and bottom of the frame, something that’s taken into account by the director at the time of shooting. This means that unlike “pan and scan” transfers of 2.35:1 films, full-frame Super 35 transfers such as this one allow you to see almost the full frame width (some cropping does occur), and as a result the picture here never seems “cramped”.

  Audio
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While perfectly clean and clear, this audio track is disappointing in a couple of regards. First, it’s billed on the back cover as a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack - the audio format this film was presented in theatrically. On the disc, though, is only a 2.0 surround track, and one which has been subjected to a fair amount of audio compression - it’s actually mastered at a fairly conservative level, but seems to blast out of the speakers, with no real sense of dynamic range. This is the clincher that as good as proves this is from a master made for VHS. The down side to all this compression, apart from the lack of punch, is the amount of tape hiss that crops up from time to time in quiet passages - one example of this is right at the beginning of the movie.

Aside from that, audio fidelity is fine, as is frequency response. The music score and songs often appear with a suitable amount of sonic crunch: the score was written and performed by Damon Albarn, who music fans will know as the frontman of UK band Blur. His score is terrific, and there’s a decent helping of good pop songs for added boost (trivia fans might be interested to note the name of one of the music supervisors on this film - Toni Halliday, from the band Curve).

  Extras
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A trailer, presented full-frame with incredibly ordinary picture quality, and put together by people who obviously didn’t have a clue what the film was about. And that’s it for this rental-turned-retail disc, aside from an obscure scene selection menu.

  Overall  
Contract

Ordinary Decent Criminal may not be a modern cinema masterpiece, but is a lot more enjoyable than you’d expect - thanks in no small part to the performance of Kevin Spacey, who seems to be able to lift any film to a watchable level simply by being in it. For all its failings, this is a snappily directed, unassuming and enjoyable romp, and while it shouldn’t be taken the least bit seriously (and certainly not as gospel) it’s a lot better than a couple of other recent UK “crime-core” efforts in both the filmmaking and performance departments.

Fox’s long, long, long-delayed sell-through disc of the film is the same one they put out for rental back before electricity was invented, and unfortunately it’s the only choice consumers have with this film - it has not been released on DVD in any other English-speaking country. But the presence of a 2.35:1 anamorphic video transfer and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound on European releases makes this old-fashioned full-frame two-channel artefact seem all the more lacklustre.


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      And I quote...
    "The 16-month-old bare-bones rental disc, now available for retail sale to those who are feeling nostalgic about VHS."
    - Anthony Horan
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