As anyone who saw the giddily hellzapoppin' documentary on Down Under exploitation cinema 'Not Quite Hollywood' can attest, the Australians have a particularly storied history of junky movies that seem to exceed their cheap-o trappings to be something grander, more sophisticated, and more fantastic. There seems to be some bit of genetic code that allows Australian filmmakers to take the most well-worn genres and, employing the otherworldly landscape or the hardscrabble characters that populate said landscapes, lend the material a kind of rarefied air of pop trash masterpiece.
I recently reviewed 'Animal Kingdom' which I thought was really, really great (In the time since I reviewed it, it's snapped up a deserved Oscar nomination for Jacki Weaver.). But I'd be lying if I was disappointed that it wasn't caked in the mud and blood that has defined so much of Australian cinema. For all its virtues, it was too reserved, too refined, too, well, proper; I wanted it to be more outrageously Australian.
Then 'Red Hill' came in the mail. Executive produced by a leading member of the new Australian exploitation movement, the unjustly underrated Greg McLean (who did a bang-up job on both 'Wolf Creek' and the giant crocodile movie 'Rogue') and starring Ryan Kwanten (aka Jason "Sweet Abs" Stackhouse on 'True Blood'), it's about as simplistically rough-and-tumble as a revenge flick can get. And I had an absolute ball with it.
Kwanten plays a young deputy named Cooper who has moved to the Australian country (isn't it ALL Australian country?) because his wife is pregnant and after she had miscarried, it was advised that they settle down to a simpler way of life. We see him getting ready for his first day; he's misplaced his gun and walks to the station. Of course, as these things tend to happen, a convicted murderer named Jimmy Conway (Tom E. Lewis) escapes from a nearby prison and makes a dash for the small town of Red Hill, seeking brutal, bloody revenge.
And wouldn't you know it? Young deputy Cooper is all that stands between a rampaging madmen and the town elders who (again, in a hallmark of this kind of genre) have something that they're hiding too. The movie is 95 minutes of pure, breathless suspense, which, while not breaking any new ground, does go a long way in terms of imagining a slasher movie as directed by Sergio Leone (on the outback).
Lewis, an indigenous Australian man who previously starred in the gritty Australian western 'The Proposition' (a STEAL on Blu-ray!), chomps all the scenery he can find – in addition to his bad-ass stoicism, he also has a partially burned-off face, which makes him look like Harvey Two-Face's slightly more attractive cousin. He's a pretty fearsome killer, for sure. And while the structure of the story may have you scratching your head (Kwanten is sidelined for a good chunk of the movie's second act), everything makes sense in the end, with a series of sequences that offer tons of pay-off. The suspense sequences themselves, by writer-producer-director Patrick Hughes, are elegantly filmed and expertly taut; in addition to Leone you can tell that Hughes has studied the works of Brian De Palma more than once.
In the end, the reason I prefer 'Red Hill' to 'Animal Kingdom' is the fact that it totally owns up to what it is: a filthy, violent Australian exploitation film. It's a grand and fabled tradition and 'Red Hill' fits right in. It's streamlined, ass-kicking fun that's gorgeously shot, well acted, and full of constant surprises around every corner. If you want to ruminate, well, this might not be for you. But if you'd like an elevated, expertly-directed revenge tale, 'Red Hill' is for you.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Red Hill' is housed on a 50GB Blu-ray disc, which is BD-Live enabled (but, as of this writing, no additional content can be accessed). It's Region A and Region B locked and has kind of a silly cover.
The 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 transfer (aspect ratio: 2.40:1) isn't exactly perfect, but it does perfectly emulate what the film SHOULD look like. I'll explain this in a minute.
First, the basics: skin tones look natural, detail is superb (everything you could want to see from this hardscrabble way-of-life, you get, from the craggy topography to the stitching of the cowboy hats). There's nice dimensionality when it comes to the locations, with rolling hills stretching out past forever. The color palette is fairly warm and simple, but when color erupts (say in a plume of smoke and fire), you really get a jolt.
The black levels are sometimes too dark, obscuring things that are only meant to be cloaked in shadow, but this only happens every-so-often and doesn't largely impact your enjoyment of the film. Additionally, grain is quite heavy at times, which is odd considering the youth of the movie. But here's where I say that this is more than okay: because this is a down-and-dirty Australian exploitation film. If there wasn't a heavy shellacking of grain, then it would look TOO pristine, too perfect, too legitimate. It has to look a little banged up, as far as I'm concerned. And banged-up it does look.
Faring somewhat better than the video quality is the audio quality on this disc, with a great lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that really kicks things up a notch.
Like I said before, 'Red Hill' really is a kind of slasher western, and staples of both genres are well represented here. There are some frightfully intense shoot-outs, in which bullets ping around the screen (and you will think they're pinging around your living room too). There are also quieter moments when the atmosphere is intensified (and the surround channels reacting in kind), which give you some more great jolts (there's a moment where someone who you think has been killed, well, hasn't, and I jumped out of my chair like a sucker!)
All of the sound effects are perfectly placed and never overwhelming; dialogue is crisp and clear and always well prioritized, and the music (both the Ennio Morricone-aping score Dmitri Golovko and the chosen rock'n'roll songs) sounds absolutely great. This is a kind of wide-open movie and the mix really fills that great amount of space.
It's the kind of muscular mix that isn't afraid to temper things in moments when mood outweigh violence, and everything sounds really, really great. There are really no complaints here.
While the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is the only audio option, there are subtitles available in English, English SDH, and Spanish.
There isn't a single solitary extra on this disc! A crying shame! I at least wanted a commentary with the director! Grumble, grumble, grumble. And, yes, there are previews for other Sony movies and it is BD-Live ready, but there isn't any additional BD-Live content and I don't count commercials as "special features."
I loved 'Red Hill.' It's a balls-to-the-walls Australian revenge film and is part western and part horror film; the slasher movie that Sergio Leone never made. The video captures both the widescreen beauty of the film, as well as its down-and-dirty ruggedness, and the exemplary sound mix will have you ducking in your living room. With a compelling story, great characters (including Ryan Kwanten shaking off the Southern Gothic chains of Jason Stackhouse), and loads of style to spare, 'Red Hill' is the perfect late night treat – something you weren't expecting, but still so fun. If you thought 'Animal Kingdom' was bit too highbrow, then this is the movie for you. Highly recommended.