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Friday, July 16, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Moira Macdonald
"I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" would seem to have all the ingredients for a nifty modern noir: the chiseled jaw of Clive Owen; a jazzy, minor-key score; the kind of moody cinematography in which men's white shirts glow blueish on a night-lit street; an array of actors with empty, chilly eyes. Above all, there's the presence of director Mike Hodges, who so memorably teamed with Owen for the deliciously slick 1998 crime drama "Croupier" (not to mention the great 1971 gangster film "Get Carter," with Michael Caine).
Yet, this martini isn't quite fully shaken. Blame, if you wish, Trevor Preston's confusing screenplay, which leaves the main character a cipher and gives us so little backstory that we spend the first half of the movie desperately trying to figure out who's who. (Blame also goes to a flawed sound design, in which heavily accented dialogue is sometimes drowned out by music but the little suck of a cigarette puff can be heard perfectly.)
Nonetheless, it's always a pleasure to see the underused Owen on screen. Here he plays Will Graham, a former gangster who's retired from "the life" only to be dragged back to his old South London underworld to seek revenge after his brother Davey (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) is the target of a violent crime. Will reconnects with former love Helen (Charlotte Rampling, her cat-eyed iciness in fine form), and with some former associates; all warily eye each other, not quite sure how Will's return will affect the delicate balance of power on those dark streets.
It's always nighttime in this appropriately titled film ("Don't you ever sleep?" Davey's blowzy landlady asks him), which gives director of photography Mike Garfath plenty of opportunity to explore the cast's faces with shadow and faint light. As a chilly bad guy, Malcolm McDowell's hair glows nearly white. Owen's face, dominated by that hawk nose, looks lived-in and weary; with its lines sketched in by time.
Owen has little dialogue, and we could have done with a little more: Though he's a master at conveying nuance through a wandering eye or a fraction of a smile, Will remains something of a mystery. That's perhaps what Hodges intended; this isn't the sort of movie that ties things up neatly. Yet it feels a bit unfinished. "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead" has a free-floating quality to it (like the way Owen's head floats above his dark suit, seemingly detached in the dim light); those with the patience to adapt to its pace will find rewards.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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