Running Time: 98 mins.
Rated: Rated MA 15+.
Morgan O'Neill's Solo is further evidence that Australian cinema is on a roll, putting the lie at last to the belief that Australian films can't deliver on scripts. This one is a beauty, and splendidly cast, with Colin Friels (Tom White, Dingo, Malcolm) playing Jack Barrett, an ageing Sydney hood (all of 53), who wants out from his trade as a hit-man but is unable to quit.
Literally sick of bumping off 'problems' for The Gentlemen, a Sydney crime syndicate headed by Arkan (Chris Hayward), Jack approaches his immediate boss, Roo (Linal Haft), to hand in his notice after the messy disposal of his latest hit. Roo objects, telling Jack that in their line of business, this isn't an option. And when Jack walks off the job, Roo calls in corrupt cop, Keeling (Vince Colosimo), to bring the recalcitrant gangster into line.
Roo agrees to Jack's retirement but only if he does one last job: Billy Finn (Bojana Novakovica), a young university student probing the 1997 Wood Royal Commission into NSW Police Corruption, for her final year thesis.
Can a leopard change his spots? Not for want of trying.
With her heart set on winning a university prize for her thesis, Billy digs deeper than is good for her into the Wood Commission. And the more Jack fights Roo for the right to say 'No' to stopping her, the dirtier the fight with Roo becomes. Only when Jack's closest friends are threatened - his prostitute girlfriend Kate (Angie Dickinson), and an old jazz pianist that he loves and admires - does Jack wonder if he'll ever be free.
Solo is tightly directed by O'Neill, and the excellent script delivers a powerful punch at the end. The film boasts a great jazz soundtrack (which limns the essential contradiction at the heart of Jack's character), and some witty, original dialogue. But best of all are the characterisations, which defy the gangster genre by being authentically Australian.
Jack Barrett is a familiar genre figure, the man with a haunted past, either mobster or seedy detective, but as played by Friels (one of our finest actors) he's weathered and likeable in an old-fashioned, Australian way. Jack may call the Vietnamese trying to kill him 'a slanty-eyed bastard', but he's principled in other respects: solid and true, but afraid to show his feelings to Kate (played by Millekin as a cut above the whore with a golden heart), and striking just the right note as a semi-interested, quasi- father figure to Billy, played impressively by Novakovica (ABC TV mini-series Marking Time).
The film is rich with other characters too, all played by actors we see too infrequently on our screens: Bruce Spence (Stork) in a splendid cameo as Kennedy, a small-time gun-shop owner who knows better than to trust Jack's mild demeanour; Chris Haywood (Newsfront, Human Touch), briefly, as Arkan; and Tony Barry (Mullet, The Night We Called It A Day) as the mobster Louis.
Australian filmmakers are noted for making fresh and original films on small budgets. O'Neill was the first winner of Project Greenlight Australia, the national screenwriting initiative set up by the Movie Network to discover new Australian filmmaking talent. The $1 million dollars awarded to O'Neill to make his script into a film has been well spent, and audiences will look forward to seeing what he can do with more.
Jan Epstein is an associate of the Australian Catholic Film Office.