Once upon a time, screenwriter Clive Bradley had an idea: why not pen a story about a twisted murderer who, based on a warped interpretation of an algebra formula, badly tortures victims before letting them choose between death and the sacrifice of a relative or close friend? Perfect!

Quite how (and why) Bradley came to dream up WAZ – the name being the formula in question – is hard to contemplate. There’s no doubt about the result though: a grisly tale full of malevolent violence and unstinting darkness, in both moral and meteorological senses. And, as tends to happen in the killer thriller genre, things only worsen as time passes.

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Tom Shankland’s feature debut doesn’t mess around either, its first scene teaming up green new detective Helen Westcott (Melissa George) with beleaguered partner Eddie Argo (Stellan Skarsgård) at the discovery of an electrocuted corpse, with the algebraic symbols gouged into the flesh. After a badly lacerated suicide victim adds to the cadaver count, pairs of stiffs promptly start turning up apace.

As Westcott turns her brainy head to the equation – it asks how much pain a person will endure for a loved one – the chain smoking Argo links the crime spate to a particularly callous gang. Trouble is, not-so-steady Eddie is on curiously friendly terms with one of delinquents, Daniel (Ashley Walters – yes, from So Solid Crew), constantly meeting him in shadowy stairwells or empty riverside lots for inaudible, muttered chats.

These types of locations typify WAZ’s grim vision of New York City. The action seems to permanently take place on sodden, empty backstreets, amid drug-filled tenements, below bridges, in warehouses or at the cheerless precinct that Argo and Westcott call base. It’s a bleak, brooding landscape, but also a strangely compelling one thanks to Morten Soborg’s stylish cinematograpghy.

Such terrain is perfect for Skarsgård’s Argo, that most hackneyed thriller figure: a gruff, muttering, rule-breaking veteran detective who’s seen it all ten times over, but still won't buy the T-shirt. As his partner-in-crime-prevention, George is another classic cliché – the plucky and pretty sole female-on-the-force. She’s Clarice Sterling minus the trauma; or Jane Tennyson reduced to a sidekick role.

Walters is more interesting as Daniel, but overcooks his hoodie-with-a-heart’s tenderness, while Selma Blair oozes little menace as a scarred rape victim swearing vengeance. The real terror comes from colourful supporting characters, including a creepy zoologist, a hopped-up junkie mum and a merciless gang leader. Together they make a thrillingly-deranged contingent of B Movie-style baddies.

WAZ reveals the perpretator of its all-too applied mathematics early on; the real mystery turns out to be Argo’s increasingly suspicious loyalty to Daniel – they just don’t make the most obvious of homeboys. It’s a puzzle right up to the final scene, a horrific torture episode in the tradition of Hostel or Captivity. This constitutes bonafide cinematic sadism; the sequence is needlessly nasty for all the human mettle it might champion.

This grotty, gruesome end sours a gently gripping piece of pulp. Shankland dispenses with subplots almost as quickly as bodies, but his debut rattles along at a nice, taut pace. In the end though, all that lingers is an unpleasant, twisted aftertaste.

Reviewed on: 30 Jun 2008
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A detective caught in a battle of wits with a killer is forced to pay for his past failings.
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Susanna Krawczyk *

Director: Tom Shankland

Writer: Clive Bradley

Starring: Stellan Skarsgård, Melissa George, Selma Blair, Ashley Walters, John Sharian

Year: 2007

Runtime: 96 minutes

Country: UK, US

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