Are we destined to keep making copies of copies of copies? And is this always going to make us all feel old? The knee-jerk temptation is to react to Arne Toonen’s “Black Out” in much the same way naysayers treated Guy Ritchie’s crime pictures of the late nineties for jacking an aesthetic (specifically Tarantino’s): disdain for a naked reappropriation of an aesthetic that already borrowed from earlier trends and ideas. Ritchie has gone on to validate the supporters of those earlier films by broadening his aesthetic and assembling a tidy, respectable body of work, with few genuine standout pictures. Toonen, who seems a bit more desperate in his naked theft and references, still can’t seem to shake his own crowd-pleasing tendencies. Ritchie wanted to stretch out his aesthetic. Toonen just wants you to laugh. Desperately.
“Black Out” begins in a familiar place, as retired crook Jos (Raymond Thiry) wakes in bed on the day before his wedding, next to a severely mangled corpse. Retracing his steps leads him to a series of colorful former associates, none of whom can account for his sudden bout of amnesia, the misplaced hours in Jos’ life, or the corpse that seems like a frame-up. There is a matter of missing cocaine, however: Jos claims he’s kept his hands clean, but everyone insists he’s responsible for the 20 kilos that have gone missing. And now, he’s a dead man walking. Thiry seems like an actor from a different time. He’s got that slacker-y postmodern sarcasm, but it’s not youthful like today’s jabbering American comedians. His is more a studied, handsome disinterest, like Peter Weller or Jeff Goldblum, or Bruce Greenwood if he were allowed to be funny once in a while. His Jos is harried and terrified at first, but amusingly he slips quickly into knowing derision. This is a foolish mad dash to chase a MacGuffin, and Jos can only roll his eyes. Even when the stakes are raised and a dirty cop picks up on his trail (which raises more than a few criminal antennae in town), Jos can barely muster up the energy to curse him out.
Ultimately, the bounty on Jos’ head brings out a phalanx of ridiculous supporting characters. His ex, Inez, wishes he were dead. Local crime boss Grandpa wants to make him dead. His daughters, the leggy, leather-clad assassins Charity and Petra, want to put him in the ground and collect the bounty. The last two, yet another example of the elaborate fantasy of sexy killers in high heels, debate the lack of actual female heroines in film, disqualifying those who don’t count on the basis of revenge. It’s as if Toonen is marking his territory by mentioning both “Foxy Brown” and “Kill Bill”: he’s standing on the shoulders of giants, and he hopes that mentioning it will make you forget it.
The movie is like a clown car of bad guys, constantly adding new characters of varying capability. By the time “Vlad The Gay Basher” is performing pirouettes and delivering roundhouse kicks to classical music, the picture feels like it’s standing in a puddle of flop sweat. Thiry’s deadpan, and the film’s core concept of a criminal forced to work within the eggheaded crime syndicate he once operated, are strong enough to hold their own film. Why distract from that with a rogue’s gallery of idiots, like the pair of hijackers who run a dog grooming business and keep stealing items while arguing over proper ransom prices? In case you were wondering, yes: this is one of those movies where a bunch of criminals gather in the same room with loaded weapons and end up accidentally killing each other.
This is also the type of film where an in-car brawl is scored by flying feet that keep accidentally changing the radio station. Toonen keeps the action ripe with slapstick shenanigans that bring down the narrative to the level of cartoon, but it’s never entirely funny. Most of the laughs come from the exasperated banter of people forced to work in a career—crime, specifically the “movie” type—where they have to collaborate with dimwits. But “Black Out” ultimately limps to feature length, burying its intriguing leading man underneath endless mishaps and shenanigans. It’s ultimately desperate to please, finding the audience’s pleasure spot with squib blasts, one-liners, and plot twists. But you walk away knowing nothing much about Jos, his past life, or where he might be headed on the straight and narrow. “Black Out” will pass the time, but the people who like “The Hangover III” and wish it had more ultraviolence are probably the key demographic. [C-]