“Iron Cross” will be remembered as Roy Scheider’s swan song and little else. A film of serious intent undone by hackneyed plotting and intrusive editing, writer-director Joshua Newton’s revenge drama is reasonably sound in its general outline, until it delves into specifics. Scheider feels at home in his final role as a retired Gotham cop who goes to Germany to hunt down the Nazi who killed his family, though his onscreen presence is increasingly trimmed away as the reels roll by. The briefest of theatrical windows (pic opened Friday for a one-week Oscar-qualifying run) will quickly close shut before a muted vid bid.
Prelude in New York establishes Scheider’s widower, Joseph, determining to right some wrongs. He shows up in Nuremberg to visit his estranged son, Ronnie (Scott Cohen), he hasn’t contacted in over eight years. Ronnie’s distance from his American roots (he works in Germany as a TV actor, ironically playing a cop) and marriage to a non-Jewish Eurasian woman, Anna (Calita Rainford), are just part of what gets under Joseph’s skin, and there’s nothing like being back in Germany to stir the old man’s worst memories and trigger nightmares. Watching “Death Wish” in his hotel room certainly doesn’t do anything to lower his fever for vengeance.
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At every glance around the Nuremberg streets and even Ronnie’s flat, Joseph sees everyday objects, from trucks to toy carts, and is struck by flashbacks. Technique, mastered by Sam Peckinpah before it became a fetish in 1970s films, is at first stylistically and emotionally resonant and, with Scheider’s presence, even conveys a certain nostalgia for a time when the actor was a star. But Newton doesn’t know when to let up, and his habit of cross-cutting between the present and the Holocaust devolves from a cinematic device into an annoyance.
In a preposterous coincidence, Joseph eyes one of Ronnie and Anna’s neighbors and becomes convinced that he’s not friendly old Herr Shrager (a barely recognizable Helmut Berger) but Nazi thug Vogler, living under a pseudonym. Anna is skeptical but doesn’t once voice the natural question: What are the odds that the killer of Joseph’s father, mother, brother and sister would be living in the same building where his son lives? Nearly as much of a stretch is Ronnie’s unmotivated change of heart, from wanting Joseph to catch the next flight back to New York to helping him kidnap Shrager/Vogler.
“Iron Cross” attempts to distract the viewer from the mounting storytelling nonsense with an extended midsection flashback, laying out in more elaborate terms the awful fate of Joseph’s family. Young Joseph (Alexander Newton, the helmer’s son) is spurned by his father for falling in love with a pretty shiksa, Kashka (Sarah Bolger), but this melodramatic hiccup is rudely cut short by the arrival of a Vogler-led Nazi unit. Joseph’s escape reps the pic’s best action sequence, which contains its own bit of revenge.
Although Scheider died in February 2008, before filming was completed, and despite a report that a double wearing a replica face-mask played Joseph’s final scene, there are no detectable fillers or giveaway moments suggesting production difficulties. Rather, Newton’s film is simply mediocre stuff, choppy and uncertain, with hints of ambitious ideas that fail to gather steam.
Scheider put body and soul into the project, which is more than can be said for his fellow cast members other than Alexander Newton, a promising actor whose younger Joseph has a British accent and bears no physical resemblance to his older self. Tech package aspires to the heyday of Europudding thrillers but doesn’t hit the mark.