If genre is a playground, then often its most interesting activities take place at the perimeter fence or in the out-of-bounds areas. Here old tropes, relocated alongside – or even in – unrelated genres, are stripped of the usual context that defines their rules, and so enabled to take on new meanings and unexplored trajectories. The gangster film, for example, comes with its own carefully elaborated cinematic language bound by specific cants and idioms: the internecine struggles, the dynastic vacuums and power grabs, the new players moving in on the old guard, the freelance operatives creating chaos, the once lofty kingpins taking their final stand and proving what made them so feared in the first place, the double-cross, the ‘one last job’, the dangerous missions across contested turfs, the entrapping sense of fatalism. All these generic building blocks are to be found in Carlos Boellinger’s Clay’s Redemption – but the fact, revealed by opening text, that its gangsters are ancient gods and demons, fighting it out for supremacy in a world where their numbers are dwindling, ensures that the film is chronicling, over one or two long nights in London, a takeover not just of underworld fiefdoms, but of genre itself, as the familiar conventions of the gangster film are deconstructed and remythologised before our eyes.
Clay wants out. Having long served the London underworld as a courier who, like the protagonist of Corey Yuen and Louis Leterrier’s The Tranporter (2002), traffics objects – and occasionally people – across the city, he is now ready to retire and exit. Except that he is also a ‘sleeve walker’, doomed whenever he dies to reinhabit a different human body and to carry on his duties. So in the opening sequence of Clay’s Redemption we see Clay (played by Alex Beales) being beaten to death by hired Titanic thugs who want the briefcase he is carrying, only for Clay (now played by Akie Kotabe) to return and violently retrieve the package for his boss Athena (Charlie Blackwood). For Clay, getting out means getting Exit – a McGuffin-like substance that will bring to an end his otherwise endless metempsychoses, and allow him the singularity and mortality that he craves. Yet for that, he must perform one final task, escorting and keeping safe a mute, mysterious young woman named Maya (played by the singer Nuuxs). Meanwhile, ancient Learza (Magdalena Sverlander) is hunting and killing the nine remaining gods one by one, even as Johnson (Joe Wredden), helped by his hedonistic hitwoman OOna (Elsa Nori), is exploiting the pandemonium to take out the competition and to become the godfather himself. And as J.B. Priest (Daniel Stisen) warns Clay, in a comment as much on eternity as criminality: “Trust me, you’re never truly out.”
Though relatively short in duration, Boellinger’s feature debut comes packed with city-spanning, criss-crossing incident, all presented in a neon blur that suggests, not exactly misleadingly, the hues of an urban neo noir. For the theomachy unfolding here is a secret war, with the gods and devils passing for human and engaging in what look like ordinary turf battles; and the locations are overtly the nocturnal streets, sex clubs, bars and backrooms of contemporary London (where much of the film was shot guerrilla-style), rooting all the supernatural skirmishes to a real time and place. There are many characters but little exposition – and most of that comes from the opening text – so that all these genre routines play out as a trippy kaleidoscope, recognisable yet estranged and impressionistic, with gods merely masquerading as mobsters. Kotabe’s version of the bruiser Clay may first be spotted in London’s Chinatown, and may spend most of the film with a bandage over his nose like Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), but his hardboiled adventures take place in a world that does not quite belong either to the lanes of urban England, or to the mean street of the gangster genre.
This defamiliarising effect ensures that Clay’s Redemption feels sui generis – a midnight movie that occupies those strange, ill-defined spaces between the norms of cinema. Perhaps its closest analogues are the otherworldly mob wars of Larry Bishop’s Trigger Happy (aka Mad Dog Time, 1996), the philosophical and psychological ganglands of Guy Ritchie’s Revolver (2005), and the gods-among-us machinery of Enki Bilal’s Immortal (2004) and TV’s American Gods (2017-). Yet offsetting his low budget with a lot of imagination, Boellinger has crafted his own moody playground.
© Anton Bitel