Sunday, September 16, 2012

Defective Detectives: DRAGON TRAP (2010)

Police procedural thrillers have been a staple in Scandinavia since 1965 with the first Martin Beck novel, "Roseanna" by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Hennig Mankel, arguably the posterboy for Swedish police novels, freely admits that reading "Roseanna" in 1965 opened his eyes to a completely new approach to the mystery genre. From there the genre spread at a glacial pace, encompassing Scandinavia and The Netherlands. Only recently with the explosion of Stieg Larsson's much ballyhooed "Millennium Trilogy", publishers have started looking into translating more of these gritty, violent police novels into English. I am assuming this is the case in non-English speaking countries too, as there seem to be plenty of detective thrillers popping up here and there with a decidedly Nordic air about them.

Turkish cinema for most of us obscure movie lovers tends to be a steady diet of '70s and '80s Hollywood rip-offs and remakes, most often with the amazing Cüneyt Arkın. As fun as these films are, I figured there had to be more to the Turkish cinema scene than just the ADAM trilogy and its cousins... and there is. It seems that the Turks have embraced the Scandinavian police thriller just like we Americans did, but instead of doing the expected re-make (just like we Americans did), they decided to make their Scandinavian crime epic their own.

Set in a perpetually dark, rainy Istanbul, Inspector Celal - aka The Scorpion (popular Turkish actor Kenan Imirzalioglu) - is interviewing a man named Ensar (Nejat Isler) whose sister killed herself after being brutally raped by a psychotic serial rapist and pedophile with ties to the mob. Ensar swears revenge, even though Celal assures him that the police will take care of it. Sure enough Ensar heads straight into bloody vengeance, only to be stopped short by Celal who was tailing him. Ensar bolting from the scene of the gunfight without having killed his man, chip presumably still attached to shoulder. Flash forward...

After Cheif Abbas (director Ugur Yücel) beats the hell out of some small-time perps, Celal gets a confession out of a robbery suspect by pretending to snort coke and telling him that he is going to rape his wife and make him watch. Looks like things haven't progressed much since "Midnight Express". To give some contrast (or perhaps soften their characters), Cheif Abbas has a relationship with a nightclub singer who is clearly far too young and good looking for him, but pines of getting married to him when he retires from the force in a month. Wait, a cop who is retiring? Oh, things aren't going to go well, are they? Celal's outlet is painting, which seems fairly innocuous  except that they are rather grim expressionistic portrait paintings of the underbelly of society. Yes, in keeping with Scandinavian tradition, the inspector definitely has his share of issues.

A known peadophile working as a janitor at a local grade school under forged papers is found hanging from the school's flagpole, tortured and castrated. The penis is not found at the scene and the CSI types have found an organic fluid on the corpse... fluid that isn't human. While Abbas doesn't want to get involved in a case as he is retiring in a few short weeks, Celal manages to talk him into it, just in time for another body to be found. One of three rapists, released by the State under an amnesty program. Of course, if there's one butchered rapist, the other two should be following. Matter of fact the body count mounts up so fast in this film that at times it was hard to keep track of. Clearly writer Kubilay Tat wasn't going to have any of that single-murder kind of film. No, no, we get a regular supply of fresh killings with bizarre clues, red-herrings and crazy twists flying fast and furious with an intensity that rivals a Hollywood film. Is there one killer or two? Who is sending the DVDs of men being tortured, screaming out the locations where they will be buried? Is it someone from the military? Or could it be someone who has a bone to pick with the cops? And really, mightn't he be doing the people a favor by killing the nations scum?

In many ways DRAGON TRAP is the quintessential Swedish police thriller, many of the plot elements and themes (that I do not want to spoil here) are straight out of Scandinavia. On the other hand we have great bits of tense action dosed out at regular intervals, much like a Hollywood movie. Everything else is definitely Turkish. I think this sense of cinematic terroir is what really makes the film entertaining. The dialogue is rich and poetic in a way that Europeans prefer not to be. For example, when Abbas talks about his retirement he talks about the hardship of being a policeman: "Just at the moment of making love, you know the phone rings and you find yourself in front of a body. You run to the morgue soon after smelling your child. The scent of the murderer cannot survive in a clean home."
It actually reads a bit better in context, but that florid dialogue actually lends a lot of charisma to the film. I particularly like how everybody uses phrases of the "god willing" variety. "God willing, we will catch the killer." So basically, if he gets away, that is God's fault and has nothing to do with slipshod policework. Where do I get a job like that?

Usually a digital video camera is the kiss of death to an ambitious production. Nothing screams "cheap" and "amateur" like video and any attempt to overcome the format is going to have to take over twice the effort as it would if it were shot on film. Amazingly DRAGON TRAP does exactly this. At first I was turned off by the video image, but it didn't last long as Yücel takes that digital camera and delivers first class visuals. Rich, rain-soaked noir, majestic crane shots, prowling cameras, oblique angles, fish-eye lenses and some great location photography. Not to mention a bit of high-speed vehicular violence, all handled so well that at some point along the way, I actually forgot I was watching a video production. My one gripe is the scenes where they felt compelled to do the goddamn shakey-cam thing. Doing the hand-held shakey-cam is irritating on film, but when video producers think they are boosting their production values with this technique it becomes insufferable. Fortunately there are only a few of these scenes and the majority of the movie is excellently shot, including some of the hand-held work. For what it's worth, that's some high praise from coming from me.

I went searching for an example of modern non-ironic Turkish genre cinema and I came up with something that not only exceeded my expectations, but did an excellent job of reworking the Scandinavian police procedural into something more or less wholly Turkish. I guess you could nit-pick it all day for not being what you want it to be, for Celal's clumsy attempts at romance, for borrowing a bit of stylistic transitions from SE7EN (1995) and for leaving some plot holes and inconsistencies behind when they reveal the final twist. However, I think those are all minor quibbles compared to what the filmmakers do right. In spite of it's flaws, I found it highly entertaining and definitely a nice antithesis to the dreadfully over-dramatic BBC Wallander adaptations.

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