As the screenwriter of “Dirty Pretty Things” and “Eastern Promises,” Steven Knight opened our eyes to characters scraping by in the shadows of London society. With “Redemption,” he shifts into the director’s chair while maintaining the same attention to half-overlooked souls — here, an ex-Special Forces officer now living on the streets, haunted by the realization that violence is evidently his only skill. Jason Statham is both an asset and liability in the lead role, which superficially resembles the star’s other work just enough to confound his fans, or at least the few who mistake this for another brainless, brawny thriller.
Already open in several international markets, where its title ranges from France’s “Crazy Joe” to “Hummingbird” in the U.K., this June 28 domestic release puts an intriguing, intermittently successful spin on the sort of loner Statham so often embodies. The bullet-headed action star strips his usual man-against-the-world persona of its assumed heroism as disgraced soldier Joey Jones, a homeless alcoholic making a counterintuitive bid at atonement, seeking not so much forgiveness as a chance to make things right with the three women in his life.
The first is Dawn (Vicky McClure), the mother of his child, who has been forced into “paying the landlord in blowjobs” since Joey’s disappearance. Then there’s Isabel (Victoria Bewick), a fellow vagrant he’s determined to rescue from a life of involuntary prostitution. But most perplexing is Sister Cristina (Agata Buzek), the soup-kitchen nun who showed Joey kindness when he hit rock bottom, soon to become his romatic fixation.
When the film opens, Joey is wanted for a court martial over a mission that went wrong in Afghanistan. The pic offers hallucinogenic flashbacks to the war-fogged incident, but seems only half-heartedly invested in revealing what really happened. What matters is the psychological scarring: Joey desperately wants to forget his sins, and when drugs and drink don’t do the trick, he breaks into a gay photographer’s posh loft and sets about reinventing himself, taking a job cracking skulls for a sketchy Chinese crime boss.
In contrast with “Crank” and other high-adrenaline Statham actioners, the unusually reflective film resists numbing audiences with adrenaline, while still providing the requisite number of fist fights and chase sequences. Whereas Statham typically relies on sheer charisma to flesh out whatever gaps exist in his character, Knight asks more of the star, as if determined to reveal the inner workings of Joey’s soul — and yet even in sensitive mode, Statham’s furrowed brow deflects interpretation like an all-powerful force field, blocking any meaningful reading of his motivations. In lieu of armchair psychology, the film invites a more literary reading, where nothing short of a nun will suffice as Joey’s external conscience, and posing as a homosexual ostensibly serves to mellow the testosterone-charged protag.
Sexual desire, violence and a decidedly Christian sense of guilt loom as the dominant themes in a film that wraps itself in the chilly black shadows of the big city, evocatively captured by d.p. Chris Menges. Overall high production values, boosted by Menges’ visual instincts, John Casali’s pro sound mix and composer Dario Marianelli’s stirring score, elevate a debut effort that occasionally bogs down in its own symbolism.
In both Afghanistan and London, Joey senses that he’s being watched by drones — or “hummingbirds” — and the film reinforces his paranoia by privileging footage of video surveillance shot from above, suggesting an eye-of-God observer who sits in judgment of Joey’s every action. At street level, his actions are more ambiguous, even contradictory at times, as he endeavors to do right by some characters while meting out biblical justice on others. It’s no accident that his redemptive gesture takes place on the roof of a high-rise, or that Sister Cristina cradles him afterward in a classic Pieta pose, though fans surely would’ve appreciated a little less poetry and a lot more action.