|'Sampson and Mahony feel as though they're aiming to make a film akin to the warped crime comedies of the Coen Brothers'.|
The opening moments of The Smuggler - released as The Mule in its native Australia and several other places - show us titular character Ray (Angus Sampson) removing his trousers and underpants before bending over to proffer his posterior. The two customs officers who have instructed him to do so then proceed to play rock-paper-scissors to decide who must examine Ray's rear end.
Whilst such a cheeky (pun intended) beginning clearly shows co-directors Sampson and Tony Mahony intend to make The Smuggler a comedy, there's a lot here which feels remarkably at odds with that aim. Perhaps most noticeably, the violence sporadically on offer throughout is fairly brutal, with a few scenes feeling uncomfortably juxtaposed with some of the lighter moments Sampson and Mahony also include.
Ray's detention by the authorities for days on end whilst desperately preventing himself from passing his intestinal cargo is of course ripe for a fair bit of toilet humour, but the script - again from Sampson, written with Jaime Brown and co-star Leigh Whannell - pleasingly manages to keep such base laughs to a minimum. There are, however, a handful of scenes which take the concept close to its disgusting limit, again going against The Smuggler's comedy tag - one stomach-testing scene in particular might feel more at home in Whannell's Saw franchise.
Despite its inconsistent tone, and despite a pedestrian opening act which takes too long to arrive at the film's central concept, The Smuggler emerges an engaging and entertaining watch. From the point at which Federal Detectives Les Paris (Ewen Leslie) and Tom Croft (Hugo Weaving) enter the narrative and matters become largely confined to the airport hotel in which the two detain Ray, Sampson and Mahony feel as though they're aiming to make a film akin to the warped crime comedies of the Coen Brothers, upping their game in the process.
It doesn't really matter that The Smuggler perhaps inevitably fails to reach the heights of the Coens' best output; the writers and directors all earn considerable points both for succeeding more often than failing, and for trying to emulate their offbeat style in the first place. The quirky elements crop up throughout, often made all the more humorous through the film's early 1980s setting. Keep an eye out for a model yacht made entirely of ham being served in the hotel restaurant in support of Australia's sailing team. The country's progress in the America's Cup is tracked throughout the film and occasionally drawn on as a metaphor, but far better when it's just a eccentric reminder of the decade in which The Smuggler's events takes place.
The Smuggler is released on UK DVD on Monday 22nd February 2016, and on digital download on Monday 29th February 2016.