An Edinburgh-set "Cape Fear" in reverse, with the former criminal being stalked by a rep of law and order, "The Debt Collector" has some fine moments with its seasoned cast but badly needs tightening by 15 minutes. At its best, the movie has a toughness and grit reminiscent of '70s classics like "Get Carter ," though too often the tension is allowed to slip with unnecessary scenes and the dialogue loses its edge with equally unnecessary profanity (and frequent use of the c-word). Only modest theatrical returns look likely, which is a pity considering the potential buried here.

An Edinburgh-set “Cape Fear” in reverse, with the former criminal being stalked by a rep of law and order, “The Debt Collector” has some fine moments with its seasoned cast but badly needs tightening by 15 minutes. At its best, the movie has a toughness and grit reminiscent of ’70s classics like “Get Carter ,” though too often the tension is allowed to slip with unnecessary scenes and the dialogue loses its edge with equally unnecessary profanity (and frequent use of the c-word). Only modest theatrical returns look likely, which is a pity considering the potential buried here.

Looking middle-aged, low-key and respectable, Billy Connolly plays Dryden, a convicted murderer and ruthless debt collector who was finally put away by tough cop Keltie (Ken Stott) in ’76. Now out, and with a chic journalist wife, Val (Francesca Annis), in tow, Dryden is a pillar of the community, a model bad-boy-gone-good, who hosts a swanky reception for his sculpture. But the champagne suddenly goes flat when Keltie turns up to remind everyone that Dryden once stabbed a woman who owed money.

Curious about an unexplained part of Keltie’s speech, Val asks Dryden what “the policy” was, and is told it was a way of getting money from debtors who had no fear for their own lives — by hurting their friends and relatives instead. Said “policy” (a much better title for the pic) becomes an ironic subtext to the movie, as Keltie and Dryden’s war intensifies.

Keltie’s harassment increases by turns, trying to make Dryden crack and reveal his true face again. Parallel to the main story is that of Flipper (Iain Robertson), a young punk who idolizes Dryden and wants to be a debt collector. His efforts to impress only serve to further muddy the waters between the two men, with Dryden’s wife and stepson and Keltie’s mother (Annette Crosbie) drawn into the conflict.

Shot in widescreen, and in often grubby, unforgiving colors, the movie has an impressive first hour as characters are drawn in depth and Dryden eventually cracks. Thereafter, the tone is less certain: Tyro writer-director Anthony Neilson shows he can put together smoothly helmed sequences when he wants to (such as Dryden and Flipper’s confrontation in an alley) but is unable to maintain the tension for a further 50 minutes. Some scenes (Val’s breakdown at home) simply hold up the action; others go on past their prime; and the long-awaited climax wobbles perilously close to farce. It’s also a movie that has two too many endings.

Most of these faults could be corrected with simple cutting, as the raw material and actors’ playing are fine. Connolly is first-class as Dryden, in a saddened, tightly wound perf that’s believable both as a psychopath and as a man who thinks he’s put his past behind him. The grizzled Stott, an exceptionally fine actor mostly known for his TV work, is equally good, though the script never provides a good enough reason for his character’s obsession. Other thesps are on the money, with Annis making the most of her part as the high-class wife.

Pic was shot in Edinburgh as well as neighboring Glasgow.

The Debt Collector

(DRAMA -- BRITISH)

Production

A FilmFour Distributors release (in U.K.) of a FilmFour presentation, in association with the Glasgow Film Fund, of a Dragon Pictures production. (International sales: FilmFour Intl., London.) Produced by Graham Broadbent, Damian Jones. Directed, written by Anthony Neilson.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe London color, widescreen), Dick Pope; editor, John Wilson; music, Adrian Johnston; production designer, Mark Geraghty; art director, Ken Wheatley; costume designer, Trisha Biggar; sound (Dolby Digital), Colin Nicolson; stunt coordinator, Lee Sherward; line producer, Liz Bunton; assistant director, Mary Soan; casting, Jina Jay. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (market), Feb. 18, 1999. Running time: 109 MIN.

With

Nickie Dryden ..... Billy Connolly Gary Keltie ..... Ken Stott Val Dryden ..... Francesca Annis Flipper ..... Iain Robertson Lana ..... Annette Crosbie Colquhoun ..... Alistair Galbraith
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