Life of Crime (2013)

Right target. Wrong woman.

A direct prequel to Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997), and based on an Elmore Leonard novel titled The Switch, Life of Crime follows the ‘not exactly criminal masterminds’ Ordell Robbie (musician Mos Def, credited as yasiin bey) and Louis Gara (John Hawkes) — who were played by Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro in Tarantino’s flick — twenty years prior to the events of Jackie Brown, where the pair had recently hit it off in prison while serving time for grand theft auto. With both Louis and Ordell now released from jail, Ordell devises a plan to blackmail a corrupt real estate developer in Detroit, named Frank Dawson (Tim Robbins), who, on the sly, has millions of dollars stored away in offshore accounts.

Louis and Ordell figure that to pull this little con off, they must kidnap Frank’s beautiful wife Mickey Dawson (Jennifer Aniston) — secretly suffering from boredom, identity crisis and an unhappy marriage while living in a wealthy Detroit suburb — and demand a million dollars for her safe return, and if Frank decides to go to the police instead of paying the ransom, the dubious crooks will just have to remind him of his illegal offshore activities; it was a fool-proof set-up that couldn’t possibly go wrong. After Mickey is kidnapped — while her husband is supposedly away on ‘business’ — she is held captive in the home of Richard Edgar Monk (Mark Boone Junior), an ugly, moronic Nazi sympathizer and gun nut.

'I'll be there for you.'
‘I’ll be there for you.’

Alas, things don’t play out according to Louis and Ordell’s plan after a slight hiccup with a philandering neighbor named Marshall Taylor (Will Forte), who accidentally witnesses the snatch-and-grab while attempting to have an affair with Mickey. This isn’t the kidnappers biggest dilemma however, as unbeknownst to Louis, Ordell or even Mickey, Frank has just recently filed for divorce. Making matters worse, Frank’s latest squeeze, the sexy and clever mistress, Melanie Ralston (Isla Fisher), who is gallivanting with Frank down in the Bahamas — where Frank is currently holed up — takes charge and manages to manipulate and completely disrupt the blackmail, giving Frank the idea that maybe he doesn’t want Mickey back in his life after all, and with his divorce finally going through, Melanie is intent on marrying Frank once the split is finalized.

As author Leonard is commonly hailed, ‘the King Daddy of crime writers,’ and ‘the best writer of dialogue alive,’ having penned Get Shorty (1995), Out of Sight (1998) and Jackie Brown (1997), all considered successful book-to-film adaptations, The Switch seemed to be a sure winner to translate to the silver screen. Being described as the brainchild of Quentin Tarantino, The Coen Brothers and Woody Allen, the novel is overflowing with unexpected humor, tension, thrills, twists and unforgettable characters. Complete with double crosses, plot twists and shocking violence, which could only come from the brilliant mind of Elmore Leonard, Life of Crime never quite manages to give audiences that immersive crime caper that his prior adapted works achieved so effortlessly.

Trick or Treat?
Trick or Treat?

Relatively unknown Daniel Schechter, Supporting Characters (2012), who wrote and directed the feature, could be the film’s biggest defect, as it’s evident in the storytelling that had a more experienced filmmaker got their hands on Leonard’s text, Life of Crime could have been a stronger, more gripping and tense cinematic experience. Being Schechter’s third picture, he clearly isn’t equipped with the right tools or techniques to pull off a multilayered narrative such as this one, where the audience are placed in the center of a surreal scenario, deeply imbedded in reality — in this case, a kidnapping — surveying how real people might handle themselves in such a crazy situation. The pace of the flick is slow; time seems to pass with little going on in terms of excitement, tension or even plot. Sure, some of the dialogue is sharp and witty, but Schechter is no Tarantino, as most conversational scenes just seem to drag or feel monotonous.

On the other hand, the ensemble cast is considerably decent with Jennifer Aniston, We’re the Millers (2013), leading this all-star show. Aniston’s role as a miserable and discontent mother/wife-turned-hostage is something new for the actress and Aniston raises to the challenge, delivering one of the better performances of her recent career; she brings both a charming vulnerability and a relatively steely demeanor to Mickey and her unforeseen predicament. Similarly, it’s fun to actually see John Hawkes, American Gangster (2007), play a character who’s akin to something of a ‘good guy,’ despite the fact that Louis is obviously a criminal and kidnapper. The supporting players are all quite sound, with Fisher, Now You See Me (2013), being especially amusing as the sultry and subliminally scheming Melanie, and Mark Boone Junior, Memento (2000), who’s lawfully unpredictable and menacing as the Jew hating Nazi adherent, Edgar Monk.

Smokin' hot Isla Fisher!
Smokin’ hot Isla Fisher!

With a rich seventies style production design by Inbal Weinberg, The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), and Eric Alan Edwards’, Knocked Up (2007), somewhat inspired cinematography, Life of Crime is easy on the eye, coming across as a lower or straight-to-video version of American Hustle (2013), at least from a design perspective, even though the narrative often fails to truly take hold.

While far from reaching the heights of Tarantino’s ‘blaxploitation’ picture Jackie Brown, Life of Crime is a relatively pragmatic and clever take on the traditional caper scenario gone wrong, even if most of it comes across as feeling uninspired. With a wonderful cast and solid performances, this complex little character study of normal people trying to make the most of a simple plan gone wrong isn’t necessarily bad — it’s interesting to see the back-story of Louis and Ordell played out on the screen — but could have been significantly better given its exceptional source material. Writer-director Schechter has previously stated that Life of Crime is his ‘love letter to the work of Elmore Leonard,’ it’s just a shame that this passion project didn’t translate as well as it could or should have, lacking any substantial zeal or delight.

2.5 / 5 – Alright

Reviewed by S-Littner

Life of Crime is released through Madman Entertainment Australia