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Kings And Desperate Men
(1981)

Director: Alexis Kanner
Cast:
Patrick McGoohan, Alexis Kanner, Andrea Marcovicci


Once again it's time for me to moan about the many problems to be found in the Canadian film industry. As I've mentioned many times before, the biggest problem in the industry is that very few Canadian movies are being made that are not real movies. But there are other big problems that need to be addressed. One of the biggest ones is that marketing for Canadian movies is almost always bad. Not just that there's little marketing, but the marketing materials tend to be poor in nature. For example, click this link and scroll down to see how ugly and quickly whipped up most Canadian movie posters look like; they all scream, "For a very marginal audience!" instead of promising wider audience appeal. I once heard some true stories coming from the owner of an independent theater in English Canada concerning his encounters with poor marketing of Canadian films. He mentioned that often when he scheduled a Canadian film to be shown at his theater, the distributor would often provide marketing materials so poor in nature that he and his staff would have to piece together salvagable parts from the material and combine it with their own new material so that his marketing of the Canadian films playing in his theater would have a fighting chance. He also mentioned one time when he was talking to a representative of a Canadian distribution company and commented to the representative that the marketing materials for the company's latest Canadian film were of poor quality. The representative of the distribution company sheepishly said something like, "Yeah, they were originally designed for the Quebec market." The theater owner simply couldn't believe that the distributor knew that the marketing material was lousy, but had done nothing about it.

But there are additional problems with the Canadian movie industry beyond the shabby marketing and the fact few real movies are being made. One of those problems is that Canadian movies almost always are poorly distributed. Not just in theaters, but their post-theatrical life; Canadian movies get little to no release in theaters by their distributors, get a small release on DVD if they are lucky, and often are never seen after that, not even on television. Most of the blame for all this is from the fact that most Canadian movies are not real movies, and the distributors feel correctly that there will never be a demand for them even if they go to the expense of marketing and distributing them substantially. And Canadian television networks feel that same way about the prospect of them broadcasting these movies. Occasionally a Canadian movie gets made that is real in nature, but usually the distributor (and the Canadian television networks) still don't make much of an effort to get these movies widely available. One reason is that the distributors and TV networks don't want to take a risk, in part because they see the (American) competition they are up against. Some people have tried to improve things here. In 2013, Canadian movie producer Robert Lantos wanted to start up a Canadian TV channel (named Starlight) that would broadcast nothing but Canadian movies twenty-four hours a day all across Canada. There was a lot of publicity about his efforts, and also a lot of debate whether this would be a good or bad thing. Ultimately, when Lantos applied to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommuications Commission to try and get a green light for starting Starlight, the CRTC turned down his request, and the dream died.

Personally, I was glad about the CRTC's decision, because Lantos' plan would have required a lot of funding from the public, funding which would have resulted in a great increase in the public's monthly bills from their television providers. Also, as I've mentioned before, with most Kings And Desperate MenCanadian movies not being real movies, I wouldn't have wanted to pay for movies I would almost never watch. Still, as I've admitted, there are occasionally some real Canadian movies that have been made, and some of them I've heard about have sounded interesting enough to me that I want to track them down and watch them. But as you know, distribution of Canadian films is terrible. So many Canadian movies have disappeared over the decades from public access. When I heard many years ago about the Canadian movie Kings And Desperate Men, I couldn't find it anywhere. Not anywhere! But I kept searching, and recently I found it on YouTube. Not the best way to watch a movie, but sometimes you have to accept what you get. The headline star of the movie, Patrick McGoohan (The Prisoner), plays a man named John Kingsley, whose job is that of a successful yet controversial radio talk show host in his unnamed city. He is married to a woman named Elizabeth (Margaret Trudeau, mother of future Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau), and they have a young son. All three don't know that some homegrown terrorists have plans for them. Angry that a judge (Budd Knapp, In Praise Of Older Women) gave a harsh jail sentence to one of their fellow terrorists, the terrorists' leaders Lucas (Kanner, who also directed the movie) and his girlfriend (Marcovicci, Spacehunter: Adventures In The Forbidden Zone) arrange with their comrades to kidnap the judge as well as Kingsley's wife and son. While that happens, Lucas and his girlfriend abduct Kingsley and take him to his radio studio. In full control of the studio, Lucas and his girlfriend force Kingsley via a shotgun to broadcast their demand that the judge and their imprisoned comrade be judged by the public. With the police outside unable to get in due to bombs planted in the building, Kingsley soon realizes it's up to him to fight with his wits with Lucas in order to save his family and the judge.

Kidnapping, hostage taking, a shotgun, and bombs? Yep, from the plot description you can tell that Kings And Desperate Men, unlike most Canadian cinematic exercises, is a real movie. However, just because a movie is real doesn't automatically mean it's good. And unfortunately, this movie for the most part failed in my eyes. The main reason for this is that while it tries to be unconventional, it does it in a very off-putting manner. One of these ways is with the depiction of the lead characters, such as how these characters are interpreted by the cast. McGoohan doesn't seem to be putting his heart into his performance even when the chips are down. He seems very distracted, almost drunkard in his behavior, so much so that his character seems like too much of an oddball to have managed to have a successful radio career and a family. When his character sings to his son, for example, there is no conviction or warmth in his voice, and he has a prickly tone towards the other characters as well. As McGoohan's adversary, Kanner also sticks with a very wrong tone. As I was watching his character commit his terrorist acts and spout his beliefs, the sight of this gave me the feeling of one of the cast members of Monty Python trying extremely hard (and failing) to successfully tackle a very dramatic role. It's just as silly a sight as you are probably thinking, and it simply isn't what you imagine a man who is extremely desperate to set things straight in his eyes. As for the rest of the performances, none of them really stand out except maybe for Trudeau - and not in a good way. She manages to be bland despite giving off a goofy grin at times, and it's easy to see why she never had much of an acting career.

The characters are not just irritating with how the actors perform in these roles, but also how they were written. Viewers will observe that the protagonists aren't given much time before the kidnappings to see what they are like (such as Kingsley's connection with the radio station) and how the situation influences them. They seem to freely accept things for the convenience of the story, such as when McGoohan's character doesn't question when the lead terrorist's seductive girlfriend appears in his car. Things are not much better written with the various terrorists. Though occasionally some mildly interesting details come up, such that the fact that head terrorist Lucas was once a professor but got disillusioned, for the most part they are mysterious people. We don't really get to know what exact causes they are championing and what changes they want society to adopt. It also takes forever to find out what their comrade was jailed for and for what exact reason. So it probably comes as no surprise that when the two polar opposites are forced together, things feel more limp than heated and suspenseful. With the lack of sparks, viewers will probably glaze their eyes for much of the running time, awakened temporarily by a small gem of an idea. There are a few nice touches here and there such as when the planned radio broadcast starts off in a believably awkward manner, one later scene where Kingsley cuts to a commercial break over the objections of Lucas, and not long afterwards when something extremely unexpected happens that drastically changes the situation for both parties. But more often than not the script simply doesn't cut it. There are so many questions that come up that are not answered, like how one woman taken hostage abruptly disappears and doesn't appear again until the very end, why the police are showing very little attempt to diffuse the situation, or what the public at large thinks of this entire situation.

It also doesn't help that most of Kings And Desperate Men goes by in an extremely slow manner, such as the fact that it takes forever for the hostage radio broadcast to start up. I think what actor and director Kanner was hoping for was that his very unconventional direction would patch up the many holes and slowly evolving story in his script. At first, it does seem to be working; the opening of the movie showcasing touches such as medieval music and wild camera angles does take you off guard and holds your attention for a while. Also, I will admit that the almost documentary style of a few dramatic sequences is effective at times - the story then almost becomes real in our eyes. And the Montreal winter atmosphere is well depicted and puts in some effective grit. But ultimately, the direction is so unconventional that it becomes distracting and annoying. The musical score becomes repetitive and shrill, the constant depiction of people all talking at once makes it difficult to hear what all the characters are saying, and the at times rapid and/or awkward editing is jarring. The worst thing about the direction, however, is that there is not only no heart to the movie - nobody involved with this movie seems to be very emotionally invested - there is also no suspense or any kind of strong constant atmosphere to keep viewers involved. You would think that a movie with the plot description I listed would be highly charged, but that is not the case at all. It's too soft. Too reluctant. Too Canadian. Though the unconventional manner of Kings And Desperate Men does, I admit, generate a little interest here and there, in the end I think that the movie would have worked much better had it been made in a more conventional manner. It's very clear why no one has made much effort over the years to make this particular Canadian movie more accessible.

(Posted March 25, 2020)

Click here to watch the movie on YouTube

See also: Hostile Takeover, Lethal Tender, Siege

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