The Fast and the Furious series seems to be the last bastion of old school action movies still alive in the Hollywood system, particularly since the Die Hard films became a soggy old collection of catch phrases. Thank Christ then that not only is Son of a Gun a return to the old school action thrillers of the past, but is a Western Australian one at that.
This is a film of tough men doing tough things, of shoot outs and car chases, and of backstabbing double crosses. This is what has been missing from action cinema lately, and it is refreshing and exciting to see something so propulsive and unashamedly kick-ass. This is no slick Hollywood blockbuster though, so there is still room for great character driven drama amongst the set pieces and despite its lower budget, the film still looks and sounds the business.
JR (Brenton Thwaites) is a young man who has found himself in prison on a six month sentence. When threatened by the other inmates, he is offered protection by Brendan (Ewan McGregor) in exchange for help once he gets out. Brendan wants JR to not only escape from prison, but pull off a gold heist at an open cut mine in Kalgoorlie at the behest of Sam (Jacek Colman), a local crime boss. So follows a tense and explosive action thriller that offers up the expected and much desired gunfights and car chases, but also a fascinating story that questions the choices of those who lead a life of criminality.
This is the kind of film that begins as one thing and quickly turns into another. The dark, prison drama style of the opening scenes quickly shift when JR hijacks a helicopter and stages a prison break. From there the film barely lets up, as it builds and builds toward its major central set piece: the Kalgoorlie gold heist.
Along the way, McGregor crackles with anarchic energy as a cowboy who knows his business and has his own moral code that allows him to get the job done. He exudes charisma by the bucket loads through his assuredness and his gait, but that can also quickly turn to menace and we’re easily reminded that this guy is a scumbag. He is the kind of mentor that someone like JR would look up to though, at least at first. For a kid who has not had a decent upbringing, who longs for a safe family life but feels stuck in the criminal world, someone like Brendan would appeal to him. He quickly comes to learn that this is a mistake though and eventually tries to get out from under his thumb.
As strong as the acting is in Son of a Gun, this is an action thriller, and while all the character work ups the stakes, it is the major action set pieces that really make this film explode off the screen. From the daring helicopter aided prison escape to the set up where JR goes to buy guns from a crazy drug dealer in the desert, the film announces that it is building towards something big and exciting.
When the men go over the plan for the gold heist and Nash Edgerton’s speedway driver is recruited to drive the getaway car, it is on for young and old. The heist almost goes off without a hitch, but the men are surrounded by police by the time they make their move to escape. What follows is one of the strongest, most exciting action scenes that I’ve witnessed in a long time. A car chase through the streets of Kalgoorlie in 4WD trucks has that old school charm and choreography that’s reminiscent of two of the greatest car chase films in history: Peter Yates’ Bullitt and John Frankenheimer’s Ronin.
An electrifying thrill ride with a surprising attention paid to character work, Son of a Gun is a rare beast indeed. Sure, it does suffer from the odd action movie cliché here and there, but that comes with the territory. Director Julius Avery set out to make an uncomplicated thriller that checked a lot of the boxes of what makes this kind of movie great, and he succeeds admirably here.