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Mercy Road review – unreal thriller grinds the gears (MIFF 2023)

Neither John Curran’s screenplay nor direction can sell Luke Bracey as the next Tom Hardy in the adrenaline-dripping Mercy Road.

If you’re going to make a film about a man pushed to the very edge while driving his car, then you probably shouldn’t name your protagonist Tom unless you’re really confident your star can keep up to speed with Hardy at the wheel in Locke and/or Mad Max: Fury Road. Unfortunately, the inevitable comparison is a car crash waiting to happen for Mercy Road lead Luke Bracey.

Opening with a crash of broken glass, a scream in the dark and a furiously revved engine, the latest feature from Chappaquiddick  (another film hung on a car-related tragedy) director John Curran should be a frenetic thriller. Instead, it’s stuck in the mud. Closer in scale and theme to writer/director Steven Knight’s gripping 2013 emotional drama than George Miller’s octane-guzzling epic, this sub-Taken actioner needed someone of Hardy’s magnetism – or Colin Farrell in Joel Schumacher’s tight-as Phone Booth – for a mostly one-actor, one-location drama. Sadly Bracey can’t bring the gas to ignite his leaden turn.

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Co-written by Curran with Jesse Heffring and Christopher Lee Pelletier, the screenplay is a lumpen morass of bog standard angry mantropes littered with profanities screeched and spat by Bracey without any genuine sense of emotional duress, fear, fury or otherwise. He simply isn’t up to the material, as poorly sketched and derivative as it is.

What little we come to learn about Tom details a very bad day in which this possible oil rig worker (it’s not very clear) has fled the scene of a murder and is now on the hunt for the kidnappers responsible for swiping and his estranged daughter Lucy, primarily a vocal performance from Martha Kate Morgan conveyed via a series of increasingly annoying iPhone calls interrupting Tom’s vengeance quest. Some films are so noxious they poison the work of even the very best stars, as is the case with Gold star Susie Porter, wasted here as Tom’s furious ex-wife. Even the usually impeccable character actor Toby Jones can’t save it. An experienced vocal actor who also brings supercilious creep to screen villains from the Marvel movies to Sherlock on the small screen, he’s perplexingly inert as the unseen blackmailer hounding Tom during a 90-minute film that sure does drag. As for the teen speak deployed when Tom engages with Lucy’s schoolmates, it’s the cringeworthy personification of that ‘How do you do, fellow kids’ meme.

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Much has been made of Mercy Road being filmed in front of giant LED screens beaming the CGI-drawn backdrops that stand in for the dirt tracks Tom races along in his pursuit of relentless justice. Let’s put aside the why of ChatGPT-ing an action ‘thriller’ like this, rather than leaning into Miller’s Mad Max-charged muscle car grunt, itself an Oppenheimer-level ethical debate: just because you can, should you? And if you are going to flick cinematography out the window like a discarded fag butt, at the very least, you want these unreal visuals to blow us away. Instead, the drab grey panoramas whizzing by and the washed-out in-car lighting elicit such little interest that there is no escape from the droning plot nor Bracey’s wooden wheel-spinning.

In retrospect, even George Lucas’ much-derided overdose on the ol’ green screen in the Star Wars prequels has way more wow factor than this. When Tom hollers ‘Is any of this real?’ at the emptiness enveloping him, both in-story and on camera, I responded with a huffily gruff ‘no.’

Mercy Road screens at MIFF this weekend and will have a wider release on 5 October 2023.