BINGE-R #10: Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency + Action Movie Audit
DIRK GENTLY’S HOLISTIC DETECTIVE AGENCY S1
Streaming Service: Netflix
Availability: All eight episodes now streaming
An aggressively eccentric mash-up of pulp science-fiction, X-Files conspiracy theories, and new age divination, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is true to the show’s title character: a geeky enthusiast steered by fate who attaches himself to his baffled associates. Played by Samuel Barnett with a cheery British lack of empathy and a tone reminiscent of Rik Mayall in his prime, Dirk Gently arrives in both Seattle and the life of Todd Brotzman (Elijah Wood). A hotel bellhop, Todd’s bad day starts with his drug-crazed landlord destroying his car and ends with him finding a murder scene in his workplace’s penthouse notable for dismembered bodies and non-human bite marks on the ceiling.
In the first two episodes you’ll find yourself wondering, “What is going on here?” You won’t be alone – many of the characters, including Todd and a police detective (Richard Schiff) investigating the murder victim’s missing daughter, repeatedly voice the same query. With its jaunty energy, droll bafflement and eerie reminders that everything that appears unconnected must be connected, the series intermingles déjà vu, coincidence and loopy predetermination. “Did you just dodge a bullet?” one astonished character asks another post gunfight. “No, the bullet dodged me,” comes the indifferent reply.
The show’s creator, American screenwriter Max Landis (American Ultra), has basically kept the title character and the gaga gumshoe conceit of Douglas Adams’ 1987 novel. He’s filled it in with deadpan exchanges, bursts of ultraviolence and half a dozen story strands that include the original murder victim’s highly self-critical security chief, Farah Black (Jade Eshete), and multiple groups of law enforcement investigators and freaky goons. I’d like to write that it calms down, but the third episode doubles down on the weirdness.
Still, Landis is an adept juggler, and some of the storylines are vividly effective. As Dirk’s dark twin, a ragged “holistic assassin” named Bart Curlish, Fiona Dourif is mesmerising in her unpredictability, and whenever the narrative feels familiar there’s an acknowledgment and debunking: “I am not your Watson, asshole,” Todd tells Dirk after a Sherlock Holmes-like moment, and if only the direction was a step above the capable; someone like Edgar Wright, whose Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is an influence here, would have added to the outcome. The series has its flaws – sole everyman Todd tries to back out one too many times – but it’s engaging. The most baffling thing about Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is that I genuinely liked it.
>> Bonus Binge: Both Netflix and Stan have the first three seasons of Orphan Black, a quieter, unnerving but also out there sci-fi mystery from BBC America built around the remarkable performances of Tatiana Maslany as a squad of clones.
ACTION MOVIE AUDIT
In the cinema’s early decades action sequences were pioneered by diverse genres, whether it was backlot Hollywood westerns or the clockwork comedies of Buster Keaton. Gradually those set-pieces were filtered through war films, thrillers, and martial arts adventures to make the action movie. Unfortunately, with the action movie came the action star, a figure whose centrality often lessened the dynamism and physicality of a great action scene. It’s no coincidence that the three fine action movies below eschew a famous lead, or that they do have a distinct directorial voice. Action films are often impersonal, but the best have their own identity.
La Femme Nikita (Stan, 1989, 118 minutes): The solemn electronic score may be dated, but nonetheless Luc Besson’s film was hugely influential, pointing a generation of young directors towards sleek textures and kinetic energy. Anne Parillaud, who has both an untrammelled fierceness and raw vulnerability here, plays a Parisian junkie sentenced to life imprisonment for a policeman’s murder following a wild shootout with her gang. When the security service fake her death she’s shanghaied into a covert unit where she aces target practice and gets make-up tips from Amande (the legendary Jeanne Moreau). Her graduation is one of the film’s memorable set-pieces: a congratulatory dinner that turns into a bloody assassination and pitched battle. The subtext is a woman’s struggle to satisfy conflicting male expectations, with Nikita torn between her handler Bob (Tcheky Karyo) and subsequent civilian boyfriend Marco (Jean-Hugues Anglade). It’s a story of survival made with charged excess.
The Raid (Stan, 2010, 93 minutes): Like many Asian nations, Indonesia has a steady domestic martial arts film market, but the low budget productions didn’t reach international audiences until an expatriate Welsh filmmaker matched the scene’s craftsmanship to his own philosophy. Set in a Jakarta housing estate tower so as to contain the story and the budget, The Raid sees a SWAT team come to covertly arrest a crime boss ambushed. The sole survivor is Rama (Iko Uwais), who has to fight and fight and fight his way out in long and impeccably choreographed scenes of hand-to-hand combat that have a bruising physicality. Evans provides master shots and sequences within sequences that make use of the building’s environment, and his composure gives the film a visual coherence. The Raid remains a cult release, but some took notice: the actor playing Rama’s chief pursuer Mad Dog, Yayan Ruhian, was subsequently cast in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Haywire (Netflix, 2011, 93 minutes): Steven Soderbergh wanted to make an action film by his own dictates, with physical plausibility central, so he cast former MMA champion Gina Carano in the lead role. As Mallory Kane, a U.S. Marine turned private black ops contractor, Carano is a formidable presence who in a series of extended fight scenes takes down her more famous male co-stars such as Channing Tatum and Michael Fassbender. Carano’s performance is keyed to wary revenge, with Mallory betrayed while on a mission for her boss and former boyfriend, Kenneth (Ewan McGregor), and the oblique plotting slowly reveals the cold commercial realities of the security industry. With Carano rarely requiring a double, Soderbergh shoots Mallory’s brutal fights with longer shots and wider framing. She is an indomitable force, and by the final confrontation her adversary is desperately looking to escape. With the late afternoon sun creating expressive silhouettes on a beach, Soderbergh alternates angles and distances to create a sequence both brutal and beautiful.
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