It's been 50 years since Jean-Luc Godard said that all a film needs is a girl and a gun. Bet he wishes he could take that back. In the last half-century, there have been countless movies about babes and bullets. Some were great, many were awful, and the vast majority were simply forgettable.
Slot Son of a Gun into that middling pack. First-time feature director Julius Avery shouldn't be ashamed of his serviceable debut. The handsome, paint-by-numbers thriller stars Ewan McGregor as gruff chess buff Brendan Lynch, who's also the most fearsome convict in Australia. Lynch is small but mighty. He pads down the prison hallways flanked by frightening brutes with even scarier haircuts. Though he's got 20 years left to serve, he radiates the calm of a man who knows he'll find a way out — which he does when he befriends 19-year-old pretty boy J.R. (Brenton Thwaites), sentenced to a mere six months.
Lynch cuts J.R. a deal: He'll protect him from rape if, once paroled, the kid will follow orders on the outside. These early scenes have menace. Thwaites has a sullen innocence and a rough backstory his character isn't willing to confess. But as soon as he's outside and shacked up in Lynch's luxury pad with nothing but a burner phone and a terrible new wispy mustache, the intensity dissipates. The anxiety was worst behind bars — now we're just watching this kid wonder how he'll have to pay off his debt while making eyes at a mysterious Russian delivery hottie named Tasha (Alicia Vikander), who treats him as a fool.
Thwaites can't do much with a character who's merely a hunky, brooding cipher. J.R. is the latest Xerox of the dullest hero archetype: the silent noble savage. His most interesting flaws are simply bad parenting: He can't swim and he's never used chopsticks. J.R. is who every 13-year-old boy dreams he'll be when the bad guys come, which is far different from a character adults might enjoy watching. (What middle-schooler wants to grow up to be Dr. Gregory House?) And Son of a Gun accepts emotional immaturity as a given. J.R. is simply a series of cause-and-effect reactions. Demand his loyalty? Sure thing, boss. Insult his girl? He'll throw a punch. Shoot? He'll shoot back and ask questions never.
After a thrilling, if haphazard, prison break, the movie shifts into its third gear as J.R. and Lynch plan an elaborate gold heist fated to go terribly wrong. The film's trajectory is as predictable as a bullet's: There are crosses and double-crosses, clumsily inserted strip-club scenes, professions of eternal love between two heartthrobs who've barely spoken, and stakes so high and yet ordinary that they loom no larger in our minds than hills covered in haze.
To work at all, Son of a Gun has to make us believe that J.R. and Tasha have a romance for the ages. They have chemistry, sure — they're both so gorgeous, they'd each look convincing snogging with a kangaroo. But the screenwriters have merely written Tasha as an impossible fantasy, a badass chick who in one scene glares at her would-be seducer and orders him to give her space, and in the next surprises him by frolicking topless at the beach. The best moment in their flirtation is when Tasha makes fun of his lame new leather jacket — it makes him look like everybody else, she sniffs. Well, she's not dating the World's Most Interesting Man. Does she want him to earn a bunch of money to rescue her from bondage? Of course. Doesn't every heroine in a movie like this?
McGregor does solid work in the service of a script that saddles him with a scientifically nonsensical speech about how every human has descended from either a chimpanzee or a bonobo. I'd be madder about a movie misrepresenting the theory of evolution if I thought more people would see it. McGregor still has an electric charisma that holds our attention, but he owes it to himself to choose smarter projects.
An Australian thriller must have sounded like a sensible pick. Filmmakers David Michôd and Joel and Nash Edgerton (the latter of whom has a cameo here) have given the country's film industry a dusty, nasty genre renaissance that recalls the exciting early days of Italian spaghetti Westerns. There's a building interest in Aussie films, and no shortage of talent. Here, cinematographer Nigel Bluck has designed several standout images, such as a mirrored train curving around a bend where the landscape our protagonists are fleeing is reflected back on them like something they may never escape. If only the script had earned that perfect shot. But like so many meathead action thrillers, it's too busy fogging the windows with hot air to see the big picture.
SON OF A GUN | Directed by Julius Avery | A24 | NoHo 7 and on-demand