In the wake of recent Aussie crime pics, like “Chopper” and “The Hard Word,” in which violence is liberally laced with dark humor, comes “Dirty Deeds,” a provocatively gritty yet disarmingly funny film about the Mafia’s attempt to muscle into the Sydney crime scene in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War. Showcasing a gallery of fine actors giving exuberant performances, this slickly handled genre piece should rake in the dollars Down Under, which would prove gratifying to Kerry Packer’s Channel Nine network, which enters feature film production with this effort. Despite being in many ways an attractive bet for U.S. release, enthusiasm may be dampened by a mild anti-American slant which, though in the main handled with laconic good humor, might still ruffle some feathers.
The most ambitious outing yet from talented writer-director David Caesar (whose last two films, “Idiot Box” and “Mullet,” were small-scale dramas about everyday life), “Deeds” revels in its retro imagery of Sydney during a watershed era in which the country finally shed its dependence on Britain and embraced all things American, participating in the Vietnam War alongside its Yank allies.
This Sydney is a gangster’s paradise, with corrupt police and politicians. The story is inspired by real Sydney mobsters, and many of the incidents actually took place, though Caesar refuses to be limited to a strictly factual scenario.
Barry Ryan, played by Bryan Brown as almost a continuation of the character he portrayed in Gregor Jordan’s “Two Hands” (1999), is a “leading Sydney identity” (i.e., gangster) whose natural charm disguises his utter ruthlessness. He lives with his sulky wife, Sharon (Toni Collette) and their small son, but he spends most of his time with his gang members or in the apartment he’s rented for his sexy young mistress, Margaret (Kestie Morassi).
Opening sequence intercuts between scenes of Aussie troops — including Barry’s nephew, Darcy (Sam Worthington), on chopper patrol in ‘Nam — and scenes back in Sydney — in which Barry and his goons smash up the club owned by Sammy (the late Paul Chubb). Sammy had acquired poker machines from Barry’s rival, and Barry is determined to control all of them. The destructive mayhem is overseen by corrupt cop Sgt. Ray Murphy (Sam Neill).
But in far-off Chicago, a Mafia boss has decided he wants to take over the Sydney poker machine business, and dispatches two of his men, Tony (John Goodman) and Sal (Felix Williamson). The men are completely ignorant about Australia; they don’t even know if the locals speak English (“They don’t look like Mexicans, do they?” asks Sal). Barry tries to negotiate with the visiting Americans. However, he gradually realizes he’s being betrayed by a member of his own gang, while at the same time Sharon, who is aware of Margaret’s existence, decides to bring her wayward husband back into line. Matters come to a head during a hunt for wild pigs in the outback, with a surprising resolution to the conflict.
For the most part, Caesar dexterously juggles the elements of suspense and humor. He keeps the pace fast, and directs in punchy, highly visual style, with tilted camera angles and complicated editing wipes designed to parallel the rolling images on the poker machines. Colors are highly saturated to give the film the look of pics made during the late ’60s.
Brown, who also produced for his New Town Films shingle, delights in his showy role as the ruthless gangster, while in what could have been an irritatingly marginal role, Collette turns Sharon into a forceful and determined character.
Worthington (who made an impression in “Bootmen”) winningly conveys the naivete of Darcy, while Goodman has enormous fun with his role as the blustering Chicago mobster. Neill brings charm and subtlety to the marginal role of the crooked cop, and newcomer Morassi lends depth to the accommodating Margaret. Perhaps the film’s revelation, though, is Williamson, an Aussie actor (and son of playwright and screenwriter David Williamson), who makes a thoroughly convincing Sal.
Anti-U.S. jibes will appeal to local audiences, who generally respond to pics in which Aussie characters triumph over Brits or Yanks. But there’s a surprisingly somber scene, midway through the film, in which Sal explains to Darcy that the Vietnam War was a creation of the Mafia. Although it’s clear Sal is talking nonsense, he obviously believes what he’s saying, and Darcy is visibly shaken as the American explains that the war is all about heroin. For a moment, the cheery mood of the film chills.
Production values are impressive given the film was obviously made on a tight budget, with every dollar up on the screen.