Thursday 20 June 2019

Suzie goes to Hollywood: "Division 19"

Division 19 is one of those done-on-a-shoestring indies that may ultimately function better as showreels than they do as entertainments people might pay to see. The British writer-director Suzie Halewood, who garnered some favourable reviews for her 2008 crime caper Bigga Than Ben before going off-radar, has struck out for Hollywood to construct herself a brave new world: a desaturated vision of 2039 L.A., where anonymity is deemed illegal, citizens are subject to 24/7 surveillance, and prisoners are deployed as money-spinning entertainment brands, thumping one another as the main attraction on pay-per-view television. As that last trope suggests, this world has been constructed out of the bric-a-brac of a thousand other filmed dystopias. Division 19 opens with a tear-down-the-system monologue straight out of the Tyler Durden playbook; the title does a very precise job of locating the action that follows within touching distance of both Neill Blomkamp's District 9 (monitoring stations hover over Halewood's city) and the Luc Besson-produced District 13 franchise (the hero's hacker brother has enlisted a team of free runners to help overthrow the status quo). Lording over proceedings - in a role previously occupied by The Running Man's Richard Dawson, Fortress's Kurtwood Smith and Elysium's Jodie Foster - is the estimable Linus Roache, who makes a very big deal of delivering one pun ("Ex-fucking-con Factor"); Dutch import Lotte Verbeek is the bored widow who - in the most rote scene of any 2019 release - throws herself at our hero for the sole reason that that's what a bored widow does in this type of film. Clarke Peters of The Wire shows up for an afternoon's work as a tech-whizz refusenik whose spacious hideaway contains a big noticeboard covered with index cards connected with bits of string. In the future, evidently, original ideas will be at a premium.

The likely reason Division 19 has landed this theatrical outing - rather than simply being funnelled towards the streaming dumpster, as our more derivative content is nowadays - is that Halewood and director of photography Ben Moulden work up what initially proves a most diverting look. You wouldn't need me to tell you that it surpasses most of the tatty British indies we see, but the first act would give certain studio movies a run for their money. With minimal resources for large-scale VFX at their disposal (the monitoring stations have been skilfully computed, but the blasts they send out are, well, suboptimal), Halewood and Moulden do a lot with overviews of an otherwise deserted L.A. (and Detroit passing for L.A.) being overrun by massed ranks of hoodie-clad revolutionaries. For twenty minutes or so, it doesn't matter that these frames generate zero atmosphere, and that what's going on within them is another muddled runaround; thereafter, you start to wonder whether having to shoot out of the way at odd times of the day killed any sense of unrehearsed activity, and to feel sedated by the dead air circulating where the project's pulpy, subversive life ought to have been. One revealing line in the otherwise unremarkable screenplay: when asked what he used to do in the days before his flight from the powers-that-be, our prisoner-turned-fugitive protagonist Hardin (Jamie Draven) drawls "advertising". Division 19 does rather have that feel: something that catches the eye for a few seconds, but has nothing to hold it, or indeed the attention, thereafter.

Division 19 opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

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