Undercover is the Australian true crime story based on the journey of former Melbourne police officer Damian Marrett and how he fell into undercover work, then proceeded to take down the Australian-Italian mafia in the early 90's.
Shane Cooper has just moved to the small town of Red Hill. On his first day as a constable, he must try to stop a very dangerous convict who just escaped and is coming back in town for unfinished business.
In a nutshell, this is Red Hill and those few lines alone are sufficient to understand this plot contains classic western elements. Director Patrick Hughes seems to understand the genre very much and seamlessly blends it to the somewhat modern context.
Taken as a very serious film, Red Hill might not score very high but thankfully, Hughes doesn't take it too seriously and has written a smart script that has great ingredients and builds up the tension gradually. His direction is likewise efficient, mixing contemplative scenes with straight up action/thriller. Overall, it's got some mood to it while never forgetting it's first and foremost a piece of entertainment.
At the heart of the film are the main characters. Hughes doesn't offer much exposition for and still succeeds in giving a lot of life to most of them. This is in part good writing and direction but also due to the very talented cast. Ryan Kwanten stars as young constable Shane Cooper and he conveys very well the "main hero" vibe by being human and vulnerable rather than just a squeaky clean superhero. Steve Bisley plays Bill, his boss who represents the law in town and pretty much seems to run it. Bisley is amazing to watch and steals many of the scenes he is in with great charisma and a domineering personality. When he talks, people listen. Finally, Tommy Lewis plays Jimmy Conway, the convict on the loose. Lewis succeeds in giving his character a brutal, menacing aura without uttering a single word, which I find very impressive.
One of the very impressive element of Red Hill is the stunning music score. Absolutely wonderful work by Dmitri Golovko, who has very few credits to his name. The script shifts through different tones and moods and Golovko is always right on target, never overdoing it. Expect to hear more from this guy in the future.
Despite all the praise, Red Hill is not perfect. The surrounding characters in the story (other officers of the law, various citizens and Cooper's wife) are too sketchy. The cinematography is cool but few scenes are really memorable and absolutely nothing will make your jaw drop. The action scenes range from "pretty cool" to "lacking". The western genre is cleverly revisited and transposed to our times but Hughes doesn't bring anything new at all. What you have a cool film that partly reminded me of classic Walter Hill movies. I wish Hughes had given just another pass to his script, fleshing out some characters and situations just a little more and given slightly more thought to some scenes, including the conclusion which I feel was slightly anti-climactic the way it was shot.
But if you're a fan of classic western or old school action thrillers that do not sacrifice a smart script just to string one action scene after another there is no doubt Red Hill should at least entertain you. Australian cinema keeps on expanding in all directions and I keep on loving it!
For his first full feature, Patrick Hughes has done very well and I am looking forward to more films written and/or directed by him.
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