TWO HANDS, written and directed by Gregor Jordan, produced by Marian Macgowan, with Heath Ledger, Rose Byrne, Bryan Brown and David Field. 102 minutes. A Motion International release. Opens Friday (May 12). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 107. Rating: NNN
Toronto's film scene has been infused with Aussie energy. The just completed Hot Docs festival spotlighted a slew of excellent Australian documentaries, and outbacker Russell Crowe last week became the number-one box-office star, playing a surly Roman general in The Gladiator.
Now, the Aussie black comedy/ gangster flick Two Hands opens. The winner of five Australian Film Awards, including best film, it's the Down Under cousin of Lock, Stock, And Two Smoking Barrels.
Heath Ledger (Ten Things I Hate About You) stars as Jimmy, the doorman at a strip bar, who agrees to do a job for local crime boss Pando (Bryan Brown). Jimmy is an up-and-coming hoodlum following in the footsteps of his dead older brother. But when he screws up the job for Pando, he digs himself into a hole that keeps getting deeper with every stupid move he makes.
Writer/director Gregor Jordan calls Two Hands "GoodFellas in shorts and thongs." It's an apt description, since the film has a laid-back Aussie feel. The plot is high-energy, with violence, strange coincidences and a love story involving Jimmy and small-town girl Alex (Rose Byrne). But for the most part, none of the characters act as if they're in a hurry, and they're dressed more for the beach than for pulling off bank heists or beating the crap out of unsuspecting victims.
Dark comedy The genre-melding of crime and dark comedy has taken off since Pulp Fiction's success, and it's hard to find a gangster film these days that doesn't include an interlude of low-life criminals discussing the mundane or arguing over some pop-culture reference. In Two Hands, the bickering between Pando and his thugs is fun, especially when one of the henchman is chided for using rusty bullets.
But it's Ledger's acting and not the offbeat humour that makes Two Hands so watchable.
Australia's newest heartthrob made his North American film debut as the dashing Patrick Verona in the very clever Ten Things I Hate About You, which reworked Shakespeare's The Taming Of The Shrew into a modern-day teen comedy. Ten Things director Gil Junger admits that a lot of young, well-known American actors read for the role and were disappointed when the unknown Aussie was cast. But it was Ledger's natural charm and superior acting ability that landed him the part.
Supremely confident Although he's only 21, Ledger is a veteran stage actor, and it shows. He can play shy, sweet and sensitive, but with supreme confidence.
In Two Hands, he makes his feckless character completely likeable. Jimmy keeps compounding his mistakes with bad decisions, and bad-boy heroes sometimes piss off audiences. But while Jimmy's not the brightest of guys, he's incredibly earnest, and his slightly dopey studiousness moves the film along.
Ledger pops up again next month with his countryman Mel Gibson in The Patriot. I can't help but think that film will represent an onscreen passing of the torch. Gibson's days as Australia's reigning sex symbol are coming to an end, while Ledger's are just beginning.
If the kid's really, really lucky, he'll follow Gibson's early career path and star in great films like Mad Max, Gallipoli and The Year Of Living Dangerously. No young actor could ask for more.