The Red Machine

The Red Machine

****1/2

Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

This is a brilliant period heist movie, an entertaining glimpse into a forgotten period of history, of the shadowy intersection of espionage and criminality.

It's 1935, and the Imperial Japanese Navy has a new cipher, one the United States Navy can't crack. For the last seven years they have enjoyed absolute supremacy in the field of Naval Intelligence, and with the invasion of Manchuria in full swing the information hidden by that code is vital. They know what it is, and where it might be, and that they have to steal it. They also know that they can't let the Japanese know that they have it. What follows is a supreme lesson in economical storytelling, as spy and counter-spy conspire, cross and double-cross unfold.

Copy picture

The spy is F Ellis Coburn, played brilliantly by Lee Perkins. He is impassive, delightfully so, and despite a lengthy career this might be a breakthrough role - with credits like "boxing announcer" and "even more annoying cell phone guy" it's an acheivement to be compared to Lee Marvin. It's also totally justified. He's got a strong jaw, a wry smile, piercing eyes, and one of those demeanours that speaks of steely resolve. He is the archetypal Naval Officer, seemingly hewn from starch and sea spray.

For this job they acquire a thief. Eddie Doyle is talkative, garrulous even, a so-called 'grease man', a safe-cracker who uses finesse rather than dynamite. The two actors have worked together before, in alternate reality baseball flick Ghandi At The Bat, but here they form an impeccable double act. One is chatty, streetwise, wide-eyed and optimistic. The other isn't. Perkins' performance is quiet; in contrast Donal Thoms-Cappello wanders around the screen running his mouth, but both inject subtleties into their characterisation. Eddie gets pinched in a sequence that's startling in its simplicity - a trait seen again and again in The Red Machine.

Cryptographic grand-dame Aggie Driscoll is played by Meg Brogan, and though her role is small it's vital. The unit's Admiral is played by David Ross Paterson, who, like most of the cast, has a CV full of minor roles in all sorts of films. His lackeys, Commanders Petrie & Dean, are well played by Roger Ainslie and Bryan Larkin. Indeed, all the roles are well filled, in particular Eddie Lee as the Japanese Naval Attache (and owner of the titular machine) and Madoka as his wife Naomi.

There is a reductive aspect to The Red Machine - every scene is character focused, with them usually foregrounded. As such every actor has a chance to shine, and none fails to take it. A few scenes interpolate objects or barriers to add meaning, but the camera always follows someone, be it the stony countenance of F Ellis Coburn or the conspiring grand-matronly Stella Schneider (Mo Byrnes). Set dressing is economical but seemingly accurate, the tight focus means that period detail isn't lost in background concerns. The only odd note is that there are no cigarettes - there don't even seem to be ashtrays anywhere, but we all know the past is a foreign country - everyone smokes. There's also a somewhat unconvincing elephant. That aside, the crisp framing of each scene is almost stage-like, actors front and centre. It's refreshing, a caper movie that's going for the 'who' rather than the 'how', though there are several good moments of tradecraft.

This is a mechanism for telling a particular story, and it does so without a wasted movement. Yet everything it does hides a clue to something else - this is almost cryptographic film-making, every action having an apparent and an actual meaning. As the two work to find the Red machine, and steal it without stealing it, the key to what is going on starts to unfold.

At one point Eddie asks why he and F Ellis Coburn have been picked for the job. "Any yegg could do it", he opines, but he's wrong. The attention to detail seen everywhere else also applies to the script. Given that it was both written and directed by the the same pair, Stephanie Argy and Alec Boehm, that's hardly surprising. Its language recalls Chandler, Hammett, Whitfield, that clipped depression argot laden with a variety of jargons. It's well-shot, well-acted, well-scripted, a picture that does almost everything right. The credits are inventive too, revealing snippets of the fates of the characters as a dossier is leafed through. There's an odd visual element; the slightly washed out palette is reminiscent of Public Enemies, but in conjunction with beautiful, almost-still establishing shots it sets a tone. So too does the swinging soundtrack, scored by Mabel Echo.

At Film Festivals the film has been promoted with little wax-paper envelopes containing trading cards like those that came with chewing gum, and before that with cigarettes. Each carries a production still and on the reverse a few facts. The back of the envelope is stamped with details of the festival screenings. It's a small thing, indeed, few outwith festival audiences (and those of you who read this review) will ever know about it. It's that same kind of attention to detail that saw Weta's armourers put their maker's market on the inside of Gondorian helmets, world-building (or here, world-recreating) done convincingly, cleverly.

All of the above might serve to obscure the message here, which is either apt or ironic - decoded then, know this - The Red Machine is a very good film, and you should see it.

Reviewed on: 19 Jun 2010
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A young thief is persuaded to help a US government agency steal a Japanese encryption device on the eve of war.
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Director: Stephanie Argy, Alec Boehm

Writer: Stephanie Argy, Alec Boehm

Starring: Lee Perkins, Donal Thoms-Cappello, Meg Brogan, Mo Byrnes, Eddie Lee, Madoka

Year: 2009

Runtime: 84 minutes

Country: US


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