Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Review: Criminal, Vol. 1: Coward

Criminal, Vol. 1: Coward Criminal, Vol. 1: Coward by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have sometimes wondered why, in an era when it ought to be inexpensive to make classic B-movie style films, we don’t have serious film-makers doing riffs on classic 1950s noir films. If any cinema was ever cheaply made but artistically fulfilling, that was it.

I do know, of course, that a lot of our best film-makers began their careers in similar ways. Scorsese started with Mean Streets. The Coen Brothers started with Blood Simple. Tarantino, if always bending the rules, started with Reservoir Dogs. All those are films that riff on classic noir. So why aren’t there more?

I can’t answer that question, but I think Brubaker and Edwards are asking it too. They want to know where the good, taut stories, the stories that happen in the shadows of noir, have gone. And, not finding an answer, they’ve written their own. This is a classic noir film. It just happens to be a comic book.

Leo is called a “coward” because, though he grew up in a world of grifters and heist-men, he famously runs away from conflict. He knows his way around a “score” better than anyone, but he plays it all modestly. He’d rather take care of his foster father Ivan, a guy whose onset dementia doesn’t keep him from picking pockets whenever they go out together, than try to hit it big. He lives by a careful set of rules: always have a second way out, never work with someone you don’t already trust.

Of course, he breaks those rules for a big job that goes sour. You can see that conflict coming from the start, but that doesn’t diminish the skill of the story-telling. What’s striking is that Leo emerges as a character with real depth. He feels, in Phillips’s illustrations, like a legit actor working through a range of fears. Something similar happens with Greta, the could-be stereotype sidekick beauty, who’s more interesting for the conflict she feels as a recovering junkie and the mother of a young girl.

The twists are real throughout, almost never forced. [Minor SPOILER ALERT: The eventual revelation that Leo isn’t scared of getting hurt but rather scared of the capacity he has for hurting others come across as a real payoff, and it sets up the inevitable bloody shoot-out at the end.]

I have to take one star off for the late and gratuitous introduction of the old friend who just happens to work in Internal Affairs and is in the perfect position to help him with the corrupt cops he’s encountered, but that’s a small blemish.

I got the next in the series even before I’d quite finished this one. If the others in the Criminal book are as good as this one (and the Brubaker and Phillips of Fatale – another series of theirs I have very much enjoyed) then I’ve got a whole film festival to look forward to, and it’s all done in pen and ink.

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