Friday, August 02, 2019

Split Second (1992)

Back in the day, this Anglo-American horror thriller generated a lot of publicity during its shooting and enjoyed a widespread release, but failed to match its hype with box office takings.  Consequently, it has faded from the public memory and is nowhere near as well remembered as many of the other films that star Rutger Hauer made around this time.  Which is a pity, because it is actually a pretty enjoyable action movie which, unusually, features Hauer as the cop hunting a psychopath, rather than playing the psychopath.  That said, his character, Detective Stone, is himself a man on the edge, fueled by 'anxiety, coffee and chocolate' (according to his boss), as he hunts the mysterious serial killer who, five years earlier, murdered his partner through a 'futuristic', lawless,London, half flooded as a result of global warming.  Set in what, in 1992, was the future of 2008, the film's vision of a London on the brink of collapse, with heavily armed cops fighting a losing battle against both a figurative rising tide of civil breakdown and the literal rising tide of a Thames swollen by the melting ice caps, is well realised despite an obviously limited budget.  With a look clearly inspired by an earlier Hauer film, Blade Runner, everything is damp and neon lit, with sunlight seemingly never penetrating the stricken city which seems to consist mainly of dingy, dirty alleways awash with black water.  A sharp contrast is drawn between the brilliantly lit work spaces, be they police station, hospital or morgue, and the dingy living spaces - especially Hauer's grease trap of a flat.

But while the film looks good, its story telling is far less assured.  Indeed, it quickly becomes clear that the film's script has real problems, with plot developments not flowing at all smoothly, sub plots not properly resolved and a very disjointed story.  None of this should be surprising, as the film underwent multiple script rewrites, both before and during production, which explains its frequent changes in tone, direction and even genre.  While deliberately conceived as a horror, science fiction, occult, action, buddy cop cross over, the final script never quite manages to satisfactorily meld all of these genres into anything coherent, leaving the viewer wondering exactly what it is they are watching, as it veers, scene by scene, from one genre to another.  This results in some jarring tonal shifts, particularly between the 'buddy cop' sequences, which are frequently played for laughs, and the gory murders, which involve hearts being ripped out of victims and eaten.

But the script's single biggest problem lies with its main threat, the shadowy killer being hunted by Hauer.  What starts as a search for a particularly vicious and cannibalistic psychopath, quickly takes on occult overtones as the killer starts drawing astrological symbols in his victim's blood, then veers into science fiction as it is revealed that the killer absorbs the DNA of everything he eats (including rats) and has huge teeth, before crashing into full on horror as he is revealed as some kind of  Satanic force of evil.  At no point does the script attempt to explore any of these developments (how does he absorb the DNA and apparently take on physical aspects of his victims?  Is he a mutant?  Is he a supernatural being?  Is he a practitioner of the dark arts who has transformed himself through black magic?), leaving the viewer somewhat bewildered.  The script's uncertainty over the exact nature of its main antagonist is reflected by some curious variations in his modus operandi: despite his inhumanely large teeth and long claw-like hands having been established early on as his instruments of murder, at a couple of points he instead uses a gun against the protagonists, which seems both unnecessary and out-of-character.  (Of course, it most likely reflects a shooting script hastily cobbled together from several different drafts - in early ones the killer was clearly human and reliant upon conventional weapons).

The script's biggest missed opportunity, however, is its failure to properly develop the idea that the surviving victims of the killer are left with a psychic link with it.  Hauer himself was apparently keen for the link between his character (who carries the scars of his past encounter) and the killer to be explored.  He was right to believe that, while not an original idea, was potentially one of the most interesting aspects of the scenario.  Unfortunately, the idea tends to fall by the wayside, becoming less prominent and important to the plot as the film progresses.  Early on, it is played up considerably, with the definite hint, sadly not followed up, that Hauer's colleagues suspect that his apparent fore-knowledge of where and when the killer will strike suggests that he himself might be the murderer.  But, this is never properly developed, as the film increasingly settles down to be an action film, rather than anything more complex.

The action set-pieces, though, are very well staged, culminating in a spectacular shoot out in a half-flooded underground station involving an abandoned tube train.  While most of the film was directed by Tony Maylem, an experienced director with a varied CV including both award winning documentaries and horror films, these action sequences were directed by Ian Sharp.  The latter was something of a specialist in the action genre, with experience in directing episodes of The Professionals and the SAS movie Who Dares Wins.  He was subsequently second unit director on the Bond movie Goldeneye, handling many of the action sequences, including the tank chase through St Petersburg.  (Interestingly, he took over this role from Arthur Wooster, who had been in charge of the second unit for the five John Glen-directed Bond films and, coincidentally, was second unit director on Split Second).  Between Sharp's excellent action scenes and Maylem's atmospheric rendering of a flooded London, the film maintains both a pace and an atmosphere which are far more consistent than the script.

Ultimately, though, the film stands or falls on Ritger Hauer's performance as Stone.  While this might not be his best remembered film, it is one of his most entertaining performances. Hauer is clearly enjoying himself playing an action hero.  Albeit an action hero with severe psychological problems and violently psychotic streak.  In fact, he gives something of an acting tour-de-force, handling everything the script throws at him - from manic action through reflective melancholy to humour - with aplomb.  He is especially good with the humourous aspects of the script, which range from the black to more broadly comedic sequences, (showing his ID to a guard dog, with the word's 'I'm a cop, dick head' and later attempting to interrogate the same dog, which has witnessed the killer).  The latter also include much of the 'buddy cop' aspect of the film, as Hauer finds himself partnered with the regulation 'chalk-to-his-cheese' younger cop by their boss.  The partner here is played by Neil Duncan, (still best remembered as Taggart's original sidekick), an intense, intellectual who is an academic expert on serial killers, with the unlikely name of Dick Durkin.  His scenes with Hauer are undoubtedly some of the film's highlights, generating a fair amount of humour as their relationship develops.  sure, like much in the film, it is hardly original, but it is entertainingly delivered by two actors obviously giving the script everything they've got.

The rest of the cast are also surprisingly good.  Kim Cattrall provides some transatlantic appeal as the widow of Hauer's former partner and, though her role feels somewg=hat underwritten, gives a decent enough performance.  The rest of he cast is mostly made up of familiar British TV faces, including Alum Armstrong as the requisite shouty boss cop, Pete Postlethwaite as an antagonistic colleague of Hauer's (whose animosity toward the latter is never properly resolved) and Tony Steedman as a police armourer.  Ian Dury and Michael J Pollard put in cameo appearances as, respectively, a sleazy nightclub owner and a rat catcher.  There's even a brief early appearance from Jason Watkins as a morgue assistant.  Another notable aspect of the film is the creature design which, bearing in mind that it was reputedly conceived and constructed in only three weeks, is surprisingly effective, even if it is somewhat derivative of Alien.  In fact, after the script problems, the film's biggest weakness is that it is all too obviously derivative of other films: Alien for the creature, Blade Runner for the overall look, every 'buddy cop' movie you've ever seen for the central characters' relationship, for instance.  Perhaps this is what put audiences off when it was released.  That and an overly generic title which bears no relation to anything in the film, (it was changed from the somewhat better Black Tide during production).

Although derivative in some aspects, in others, Split Second seems prescient: it identifies global warming as a potentially catastrophic threat to the planet and, early on, establishes that the US government is obstructing international efforts to combat this threat.  Despite all of its problems, Split Second remains a hugely entertaining piece of schlock and deserves to be far better remembered.  In the wake of Rutger Hauer's death there has been much talk as to his best film, ranging from Blade Runner to The Hitcher. All have their merits but, for me, if there is one movie which showcases Hauer at his best - adeptly and effortlessly handling drama, action and comedy - it is Split Second.  It isn't his best movie by any measure and his performance in it was never going to win awards, but he is obviously enjoying himself, delivering an engaging, sympathetic and playful performance.  It is also a relatively rare example of Hauer playing an undisputed lead role - which he definitely doesn't disappoint in. 



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