A fish-out-of-water road movie set in the Australian outback isn’t exactly an original concept, but actor John Polson’s merrily entertaining, frequently funny and occasionally violent “Siam Sunset” is a big improvement over such recent entries in the field as “Welcome to Woop Woop” and “The Craic.” The briskly paced, visually lush film deserves to find appreciative audiences worldwide, though it’s far from being the kind of intellectually rigorous item that characterizes the Critics Week section of Cannes, where it’s getting its world preem.
British actor Linus Roache (“Priest”) plays Perry, a British design executive working on developing new colors for paint (the title refers to a shade of red that eludes him). Happily married to attractive Maree (Victoria Hill), Perry seems to have it all — until a refrigerator falls from an aircraft, flattening Maree. The incident is so sudden and horrific that it’s likely to be met by both gasps and laughs by audiences — and sets the stage for later scenes in which comedy is offset by unexpected bursts of violence.
The bereaved Perry decides to get away from it all when he wins a trip to Australia, where he travels via tourist bus through the center of the country. The bus is a decidedly third-class affair operated by Bill Leach (Roy Billing), a morose character who imposes endless petty regulations on his unfortunate passengers and seethes with jealousy over the better facilities offered by a more established coach company traveling the same route.
Among the amusing cross-section of types on board are the too-friendly Stuart (Alan Brough), and Grace (Kiwi actress Danielle Cormack); the latter’s on the run after stealing a pile of cash from her drug-dealing boyfriend, Martin (Ian Bliss).
Thus the stage is set for Perry to be confronted with a bunch of Aussie eccentrics while finding romance with Grace and facing danger when the deranged Martin inevitably shows up. The screenplay by Max Dann and Andrew Knight adeptly mixes satirical barbs, slapstick and violent mayhem with a little sex, and adroitly meshes familiar material with left-field surprises.
Polson gives this material a welcome freshness, aided by the sumptuous widescreen location photography by Brian Breheny (which concentrates on the less attractive areas of central Australia) and the razor-sharp editing of Nicholas Beauman. It’s tempting to see the controlling vision of veteran producer Al Clark, especially where there are direct references to “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” which Clark also produced (and Breheny photographed).
Roache is perfectly cast as the disaster-prone Englishman, while Cormack (who was in “Topless Women Talk About Their Lives”) is spirited as the resourceful Grace. Bliss makes Martin a conventionally repellent villain; the coach passengers are a delightfully comic bunch, and Robert Menzies is a standout as the sleazy operator of a run-down middle-of-nowhere motel.
Though the final shot reps a case of overkill and a self-consciously clever windup, the pic otherwise is consistently pleasurable and engaging.