AUSTRALIAN CINEMA HAS NEVER BEEN particularly interested in making films that appeal to a youth audience. There are exceptions here and there of course, and interestingly they are often the ones that do well at he box office. Two Hands (Gregor Jordan, 1999), Looking for Alibrandi (Kate Woods, 2000), Mad Max (George Miller 1979)--all of these are genre films, but more importantly they are aimed squarely at the demographic that visit the cinema more than any other. However, when I attempt to define current Australian cinema, films like these feel atypical. Our industry has gradually backed away from the vulgar entertainment of the early 1990s and into the niche of elitist storytelling.
As Hollywood chases the youth crowd, we have psyched ourselves into thinking that we must provide some kind of antidote, and thus our stories become more esoteric and spurn the mainstream. It's not an entirely fair characterization, but it's getting pretty close, and while it's nice to get a respectable review on At the Movies, it's nicer still to acknowledge that there's a generation of cinema-goers under the age of twenty-five.
The upshot of this is that Under the Radar seems almost audacious in a landscape of middle-aged, vaguely arty movies. It comes as little surprise that it's the sophomore effort of Evan Clarry, the director of Blurred (2002), and I'll admit that my interest was piqued when I noticed his name in the press kit. It's not that Blurred was particularly good (quite the reverse in fact), but it did have an energetic approach to storytelling that marked it as a rare breed of Australian film. Unlike his contemporaries, Clarry seemed influenced by things like Rage and Triple J, and my fervent hope was that the lessons learnt on his debut would be put to good use on his follow-up.
Sadly the reverse is true. Under the Radar exhibits all of the problems of Blurred, but has none of the latter's intermittent charm. Rather than refining his technique, Clarry's hyperactive style simply generates a lot of shrieking and crashing that fails to disguise the story's wheels spinning. While it is possible to discern some genuine attempts at originality, Clarry's inability to juggle the various competing elements results in a thriller that's not very thrilling, a comedy that just isn't funny, and a road movie that never gets out of first gear.
The most glaring problem is that it has lifted a character from a far superior movie and then fails to justify that theft. Adrian's (Clayton Watson) amnesiac disability is uncomfortably similar to Guy Pearce's Leonard in Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2001), (his memory resets at exactly the same time, he writes copious notes to help him make sense of his world, and the less scrupulous members of the cast attempt to use his disability for their own gain) and Under the Radar's thriller elements only compound the problem. 50 First Dates (Peter Segal, 2004) dodged the bullet of such comparisons by playing the amnesiac idea for laughs, but Radar's gangster subplot only puts the similarities in a spotlight. Of course Leonard doesn't have to be the only short term amnesiac in town, but the key is surely in running in a new direction with the basic idea. Certainly running towards anything that looks like a thriller must be considered ill advised.
Admittedly, Watson struggles manfully with his role, and his appealing performance goes some way toward redeeming the creative bankruptcy his character represents. Unfortunately, although it initially looks like he will be the protagonist of the story, he frequently makes way for less interesting characters. Possibly screenwriter Steve Pratt panicked when he realized just how close to Memento he had strayed, and attempted to disguise this by refocusing the story. If that's the case it's certainly understandable, but it hasn't resulted in a better film. Despite the lack of originality, there's undeniably something …