A political black comedy without the bite of the classic military satires it tries to emulate, "Guy X" reps a disappointing sophomore outing for Scottish helmer Saul Metzstein after his winning feature debut, "Late Night Shopping." Despite summer and fall fest exposure and awards at Taormina for Metzstein, Stateside distribution looks to be problematic.

This review was updated on June 20,2005.

A political black comedy without the bite of the classic military satires it tries to emulate, “Guy X” reps a disappointing sophomore outing for Scottish helmer Saul Metzstein after his winning feature debut, “Late Night Shopping” (2001). Story of a G.I. Joe stumbling on a U.S. government cover-up in Greenland during the waning years of the Cold War lacks punch, despite a mature lead perf by Jason Biggs and fine location lensing by Francois Dagenais. Despite summer and fall fest exposure and awards at Taormina for Metzstein and Biggs, Stateside distribution looks to be problematic.

Scripters John Paul Chapple and Steve Attridge have updated the post-Korean War setting of John Griesemer’s novel, “No One Thinks of Greenland,” to 1979, when the Soviet Union was still the great enemy.

Cpl. Rudy Spruance (Biggs) is vomited out of a military plane that barely stops on a lonely runway in Greenland. Rudy wakes up in the base infirmary, where he discovers (a) he isn’t in Hawaii, where he was supposed to be transferred, and (b) everyone is calling him Martin Pederson.

Base commander Cpl. Lane Woolwrap (Jeremy Northam), an Army blowhard written with obvious nods to “Catch-22,” refuses to listen to Rudy’s claims of mistaken identity and informs him that he’s a public information officer assigned to start a morale-boosting newspaper. The one reasonable figure is Sgt. Irene Teale (Natascha McElhone), assistant to — but also g.f of — Woolwrap.

Pic is stylistically well-crafted in this first third. But the narrative is rather formless in its depiction of bored soldiers.

When Rudy stumbles on a top-secret building, he discovers an infirmary full of nameless, mutilated men. One patient, “Guy X” (Michael Ironside), his body horribly mangled and his face half melted, explains they’re all casualties of the Vietnam War: A public relations nightmare, they’re kept sealed off from the world until they finally expire.

With extraordinary ease, Rudy breaks into Woolwrap’s confidential files and discovers the men were all part of a troop division Woolwrap commanded in ‘Nam, and were all declared dead in ’73.

From here, the Arctic summer days rapidly turn into autumnal evenings and wintry nights. Undoubtedly the most striking element of pic’s style, the change in exterior conditions parallels the shifting atmosphere indoors, as tension and paranoia accumulate.

Unfortunately, there’s not enough emotional build-up for any sense of moral outrage, and character development is haphazard. Pic only toys with the absurdist comedy elements like those in “MASH” and “Catch-22,” and, in an age when government lies no longer have the same power to shock, “Guy X” comes over as not tough enough by half.

Biggs delivers a solid, nuanced performance: He’s effortlessly inherited a kind of Elliott Gould mantle, and it suits him. However, other roles are underwritten, with McElhone, whose aristocratic beauty and inner firmness often linger in the memory, leaving no emotional residue here.

Northam, almost unrecognizable and sporting an unidentifiable accent, is neither crazy enough nor funny enough, and his relationship with McElhone is pic’s least believable element.

Widescreen lensing on the windswept glacier is pic’s strongest suit, with Metzstein and Dagenais (“A Silent Love”) capturing the shifts in mood as the midnight sun turns to 24-hour darkness. Pic was shot in only 31 days, with a glacier in Iceland doubling for Greenland.

Guy X

U.K.

Production

A Tartan Films release of a Movision, The Film Consortium presentation, in association with U.K. Film Council and Tartan Films, of a Film & Music Entertainment, Spice Factory production, in association with The Icelandic Film Corp., Wizzfilms (Canada). (International sales: The Works, London.) Produced by Mike Downey, Sam Taylor, Michael Lionello Cowan, Jason Piette. Co-producers, Anna Maria Karlsdottir, Allan Joli-Coeur, Fridrik Thor Fridriksson. Executive producers, Chris Auty, Neil Peplow, Stephen Daldry, Peter James, James Simpson. Directed by Saul Metzstein. Screenplay, John Paul Chapple, Steve Attridge, based on the novel "No One Thinks of Greenland" by John Griesemer.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Francois Dagenais; editor, Anne Sopel; music, Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson, Charlie Mole; production designer, Mike Gunn; art directors, Jean-Andre Carriere, Stigur Steinthorsson; costume designer, Stewart Meachem; sound (Dolby SRD), Gabor Vadnay, Steingrimur Eyfjord Gudmundsson; associate producers, Sam Lavender, Alex Marshall, Zorana Piggott; casting, Aldo Tirelli, Liora Reich. Reviewed at Taormina Film Festival (competing), June 13, 2005. (Also in Edinburgh, Toronto film festivals.) Running time: 98 MIN.

With

Jason Biggs, Natascha McElhone, Jeremy Northam, Michael Ironside, Sean Tucker, Benz Antoine, Buck Dreachman, Rob de Leeuw, Donny Falsetti, Hilmir Snaer Gudnason, Harry Standjofski.

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