Monday, February 23, 2009

Film review: The Combination

Director: David Field
Cast: George Basha, Clare Bowen, Firass Dirani
Country: Australia

Gangland immigrant tales have been a staple of American cinema for years. As a genre it traditionally explores issues of racism, violence and disconnected youth, but always within a very specific cultural context, whether that be Italian American, African Americans or otherwise. These Bronx Tales of Boyz In The Hood are not the sole-prerogative of the American immigrant experience as testified by The Combination. Welcome to the mean streets of the Sydney’s western suburbs...

Newly released from prison, John Morkos (screenwriter George Basha) is returning to his Lebanese-Australian family with change on his mind. Back home with his mother John looks to reassume the man of the house role over his 17-year old younger brother Charlie (Firass Dirani), who through a mixture of social circumstance and peer pressure is starting to become involved with a gang of lads led by Zeus (Ali Haider). As violence and drugs take an increasing strangle hold on Charlie it is up to John to protect him and his family.

The Combination isn’t all guns and gangsters as no film with two sides of a cultural fence is complete without a Romeo and Juliet. After arriving home John meets Sydney (Clare Dowen), a young, beautiful white girl he saves from a pair of nasty would be harassers/muggers (non-whites for the record). Poor John’s courting skills are a little bit rusty after a couple of years in Joliet and so invites her to the boxing gym where he works for a bit of self-defense training around a bunch of other leering sweaty men. It’s probably not the most successful first date ever but enough to earn John a second shot before the two inevitably fall in love.

It is through Sydney that audience experiences much of the cultural beauty within the Lebanese community, the food, the generosity, dancing in restaurants. Of course it is also through Sydney, and more specifically Sydney’s parents, that we experience some of the social observations about prejudice and xenophobia The Combination contends with. The long and short of the film's non-too subtle remarks sees white people assume dark people are Muslims (which is like double points prejudice), states Lebanese-Australians are Australians too, portrays the older generations against mixed relationships (“It’s not racist, that’s just the way it is”) and that racism is, you know, bad.

George Basha does some good work here but his script while very competent is a little on the nose, falling into obvious narrative traps and archetypes. Impressive support does come from the film’s younger talent, in particular Haider and Dirani respectively as the gang leader destined for jail or worse and the kid-in-the-wrong-crowd who might just be going with him.

Debutant director David Field with Basha’s screenplay has transplanted this classic American genre experience into Australia with some success here. The Combination might not be this year’s Bra Boys, but it certainly is an interesting companion piece.

UPDATE (2/3/09): In light of reports coming out of The Combination's first weekend in Australia I wanted to make an annotation to this review, not something I've done before but with the wonder that is blogging about film... I mainly left it out first time round because in some regard it gives away the ending's climax, one that I think is pretty inevitable.
Violence proliferates The Combination and the film makes explicit mention of the 2005 Cronulla Riots here in Sydney, during which the action takes place as a background to reference rather than a driving force in the narrative. Fights in school, street stabbings over video games and the tentacles of gang violence in general reach deep into the live's of the main protagonists. These actions (and involvement with drug dealers) are not without their repercussions as some boys go to jail and while others head for the morgue – violence is not the answer is screenwriter Basha and director Field's resolute message. That is until it is necessary for a narrative exclamation mark of course.
In respect of this central meme of The Combination the film sacrifices much of effort to show the consequences of violence in favour of an act of vigilante justice which says it's okay when someone who deserves much worse instead just gets beaten senseless and humiliated in front of more upstanding members of the community. It is a moment that muddies the message and one showed a lack of courage, or thought, in its completion of the circle of violence.

The Combination hits cinemas February 26
To read my interview with director David Field click here


Anonymous said...

This film certainly deserves an A for effort and intent but you are right, the script does fall into a few cliché traps. It is also very derivative of Boyz n the Hood and American History X but nevertheless it has some powerful moments and I hope it gets a decent audience.