Review: Blackbird



Shall we dance?

Ten years after retiring from the life of a spy after the death of his lover, Victor Blackley (Michael Flatley) runs a Barbadian hotel with close friend Nick (Ian Beattie). At the same time that a dangerous chemical formula his former comrades are searching for goes missing, Blackley welcomes two new guests: arms dealer Blake (Eric Roberts) and his fiancée Vivian (Nicole Evans), another member of Blackley’s former cell. The link between the two events will drag Blackley back into his previous espionage persona of the “Blackbird”.

A 2018 production that has become practically famous in the interim between then and its recent theatrical release, Michael Flatley’s Blackbird is an experience, that is for sure. The proportion of viewers entering into a screening of this one with serious expectations will undoubtedly be quite slight, and with good reason: 30 seconds of the trailer will be enough to tell you that you are about to see a cheap looking James Bond rip-off starring a man who simply cannot act. No, Blackbird see’s its attraction arive in being a prime and obvious example of “good bad” filmmaking, an Irish sibling of The Room, and on that score it delivers, and delivers repeatedly. But for the identity of the lead/writer/director this would probably be a nothing production of little notoriety, but in a shorter time than it takes to say “Riverdance”, Blackbird became something of an industry urban legend, a state of affairs fuelled by rumours of closed screenings and serially bad production values, and its fame upon release is well-earned.

If one is to speak seriously on the project for a while, it suffices to say that it is badly acted, badly written and badly directed. Hats off to Flatley then, who is responsible for all three states of affairs. The words “vanity project” have been thrown around a lot regards Blackbird, and it is honestly hard to think of anything else when you see Flatley, so in love with the idea of a tortured 007-type, struggle with even the most rudimentary of dialogue. That has been reduced to the point of simplicity, with most of his lines consisting of around four words, but even then Flatley just cannot convoy any emotion other than dour-faced. It was around maybe the 40 minute mark, when Flatley’s response to being told about the bad guy’s designated henchman was a curt and emotionless “He’s a serious unit” that I sort of lost it. There are plenty of others to encourage guffaws, not least Flatley in a confession box: “Bless me father, for I have sinned…and I’m about to sin again!” Flatley perhaps thinks he’s some kind of Gene Kelly-turned-Sean Connery, but he is not, as evidence by the way he says things like “I’m firing on all cylinders” as if he is an engine wheezing its way to a final breakdown.

This is a pleasure in watching bad acting of course, and any accusations of schadenfreude tend to go by the wayside when you consider the seedier aspect of proceedings, namely that Flatley is playing and writing a character who is irresistible to various women, most notably a young lounge singer (Mary Louise Kelly, who also contributes some decent crooning) at the hotel. In one remarkable scene she attempts to seduce Blackley, complete with partial nudity, only to get turned down flat. It’s rare nowadays that you see the tired old trope of the world weary action hero turning down sex for no reason, a remnant of a very old school kind of male-driven thinking that refusing sex is about as impressive an act that a man can pull off. The scene underlines the narcissism that touches every part of Blackbird, that makes it worthy of ridicule. Long past the point when Flatley seems more interested in making sure he is wearing the right hat, this one is a write-off.

Not that the rest of the cast is miles ahead of Flatley either, all taking their cues for how seriously they should treat the material from the leading man it seems. Eric Roberts, a man so used to bargain bin productions that you could practically use his name as an alternative description of such, is our villain, and sleepwalks his way through a multitude of awful scenes, not least a two minute turn when Blackbird shamelessly apes the poker sequence of Casino Royale, and the likes of Ian Bettie and Nicole Evans can’t do much more with a script this regrettable.

But what can anyone do with a story this bland, this unexceptional? The struggles of Flatley to act, the way the background extras can obviously be seen pretending to eat, the superfluous nude scenes, the unclear time setting (rotary phones are common, yet there are also snazzy laptops) they are all a cover for a ridiculous story that revolves around the, and how I wish I was kidding about the name, “Libyan death formula” and whether superspy Blackley can learn to forgive himself for the death of his former lover on a mission. There’s bits of every other Bond movie, a dollop of Casablanca and other, lesser, spy thrillers, to be found in every nook and cranny. There’s elements to play with there, but when the leading man can’t get across what needs to be gotten across with the tortured past (brought up in ridiculously drawn out flashback scenes where Flatley has enough to deal with in the tight leather jacket he chooses to wear in the jungle), and when the main plot looks cobbled together from the Broccoli cutting rom floor, there is nothing to really be done than laugh at some of the individual elements, whether it is Flatley’s failing efforts to convey anger or the moody sight of him attending a funeral in the rain that is undercut by him having his hat cocked.

Visually of course, it is dreadful. Once you take away the drone photography sections you are left with only the odd tracking shot to enliven the otherwise basic surroundings of Blocking 101, so that the required dynamism that a spy thriller has to have is completely missing. Remarkably shot on location in Barbados, Blackley’s hotel looks like a run down vacant building that has been enlivened with a few touches here and there, and hardly the Caribbean’s swankiest hotel. And the action sequences, such as they are, are of course worthless, with the climactic encounter especially risible in its use of drones to cover for the casts lack of panache, and a fistfight between Blackley and a henchman (the previously mentioned “serious unit”) so unbelievable that you’d rather George Lazenby play the part.

This film exists for two reasons. One, is because Michael Flatley had the money and the ego to make a James Bond knock-off with himself in the James Bond role, right down to filming the idea of him being irresistible to beautiful young women. The second, is because the people who underwrote its distribution could probably see the “good bad” potential, and if the cinema I was in is any indication, they were probably right. On just about every level, Blackbird is a filmmaking disaster: story, script, cast, cinematography, there’s very little there that rises above a 3/10 level tops. But the film is genuinely hilarious, especially when it doesn’t mean to be, and for that I imagine it might, in the confines of Ireland at the very least, get something of a cult following. For that reason, it is recommended.

(All images are copyright of Dance Lord Productions).

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