We should treasure our few maverick filmmakers a little more than we do, even if they’re prey to the occasional self-indulgence. Alex Cox is a case in point. Over two decades in the business he has struggled for recognition, making films all over the world, from the US and Mexico to Japan, including cult favourite Repo Man (1984) and generally underrated films like Highway Patrolman (1991). A Revenger’s Tragedy is the first feature he’s made in the UK since Straight to Hell in 1987. Cox is probably better known for his role as the presenter of the excellent BBC series of cult films, Moviedrome. And his film junky heritage shows in a wilfully eccentric amalgam of styles, playfully referencing cult favourites like A Clockwork Orange, The Devils, Performance and Blade Runner.
Cox’s new film is a bizarre hybrid – an adaptation of the Jacobean Tragedy by Thomas Middleton, transposed to Liverpool in a dystopian near-future, maintaining most of the original dialogue with the occasional punk rock expletive thrown in for good measure. Christopher Eccleston plays Vindici, the resolute revenger of the title. Cox calls him "a kind of muscular Hamlet", a single-minded revenge machine completely free of soul-searching and doubt, barking out his lines with spittle and loathing. His target is his wife’s murderer – Derek Jacobi’s lascivious, philandering Duke. He is the most powerful member of the aristocracy, portrayed in the modern setting as a combination of cartoon media mogul and effete dictator. Vindici insinuates himself into the confidence of Lussurioso, the Duke’s eldest son, played with a relaxed poise by Eddie Izzard. He and his decadent brothers are easily turned against each other, plotting and clamouring to inherit their father’s power. What follows is the common link between past and future: sex and violence.
It’s a jarring combination that takes some getting used to. For the first few minutes I thought it was going to be an experience of toe-curling embarrassment, but Cox is absolutely right to handle this kind of material with a reckless abandon. Subtlety is definitely not the name of the game, and the director carries it off with a grotesque humour and makeshift invention. Unfortunately there’s a general incoherence about the plot. The introduction of Vindici, emerging from a bus full of murdered people, is never explained. The basis for all the camp futurism is never rationalised, which prejudices the transcendence of the film beyond its gimmick. There’s a brief establishing shot of a map of Britain with the southeast submerged by ocean – presumably the implication is that the power structure has been relocated to the north of England, creating a kind of civil war. There are a few violent encounters presaged by the threatening enquiry: "Are you a cockney?", but the idea of north-south conflict is never really developed any further. There are plenty of corny jokes too, like the gladiatorial face off for the entertainment of the royal family that turns out to be a game of table football. There’s also some sloppy cinematography and a few very dodgy performances (look out for several of your favourite Brookside veterans). But every tragedy should be over the top and the drama builds with a mounting intensity. There are also plenty of surprises and striking imagery along the way. If nothing else, Cox’s version of A Revenger’s Tragedy should be praised for its audacity and invention. One thing’s for sure – there’s no other director in the country doing anything quite like this.