Well, nobody can accuse Scott Caan of having had a dull career. To most cinemagoers, he’s just the pocket-battleship son of James who occasionally pops up as smug, overmuscled meatballs in slam-bang big-budgeters like Enemy of the State, Ocean’s Eleven and Gone in 60 Seconds (he’s also in youth-ensembles Varsity Blues, American Outlaws and Boiler Room.) What they probably don’t know is that, as a teenager back in the early nineties, Caan was one of the first white rappers to attain any serious credibility: as part of the duo Whooliganz, Caan (who back then liked to call himself ‘Mad Skillz’) received the seal of approval from Cypress Hill, and even made it into the Guinness Who’s Who of Rap, Dance and Techno.
What also isn’t widely known is that, as well as his body, Caan has been building up respectable lead-role credits in little-seen but well-reviewed American indies like Rob Schmidt’sSaturn (1999). And now he’s written and directed one of his own: Dallas 362, whose ecstatic reception in certain quarters unfortunately doesn’t seem to be translating itself into commercial release on either side of the Atlantic. This situation deserves rapid rectification – because Caan’s debut, while far from flawless as it traverses familiar turf, is engaging, entertaining and strong enough to stand favourable comparison with the majority of US indies that obtain domestic and/or overseas distribution.
Caan casts himself as Dallas, an amiable – if overmuscled – twentysomething lug stuck in a Los Angeles county backwater. An easygoing ‘enforcer’ for a local moneylender, he spends most of his time getting drunk and/or into scrapes with his partner-in-crime and long-time best-buddy Rusty (Shawn Hatosy). Rusty has ‘issues’: he ’s never quite gotten over being transplanted from his native Texas as a teenager, and still lives at home with his mother Mary (Kelly Lynch). Having gotten into one violent barney too many, Rusty reluctantly agrees to semi-informal counselling sessions with her mother’s psychiatrist boyfriend Bob (Goldblum). Things go well – until Dallas starts planning an audacious heist intended to set both pals up for life …
Dallas 362 starts off gangbusters, with a remarkably fluid single-take first shot as Phil Parmet’s camera ‘screws back ’ from a pool-table, through a bar, and out into the street. Some of the most striking and stylish opening titles you’ll see all year confirm the positive impression, and from here on in, the audience is happy to give Caan the director the benefit of the doubt – even if Caan the writer seems less of the finished article. The ending, which explains the title (turns out the film isn’t named after the Dallas character) is a little weak, and the basic buddies-in-trouble stuff has been done plenty of times before. The small-time-gangsters-rip-off-Mr-Big angle, meanwhile is even more hackneyed, and It doesn’t help that the gangsterish machinations involve an especially tiresome ‘quirky ’ character: a whining oddball recluse who, though Jewish, is named Christian (Val Lauren).
Christian’s house is the type of messily dingy pad that anyone who ’s seen American indie movies will have already ‘visited ’ a million times – he must use the same interior decorator as, say, Spider Mike in Jonas Akerlund’s execrable Spun. Christian’s girlfriend is the no-less-annoying Peg (Selma Blair), and the film bogs down whenever the pair have one of the many screechy, full-volume slanging matches that seems to constitute their entire relationship.
Caan is on much more interesting ground when he concentrates on the central Dallas-Rusty friendship, a bond so utterly convincing you suspect the director and his co-star must be solid pals off-camera – a la Good Will Hunting’s Damon and Affleck. The scenes involving Rusty, Mary and Bob ring solidly true, and once again confirm Lynch as one of US cinema’s most underused assets (she’ll hopefully have been encouraged by watching Diane Lane seems finally break through after years of similar neglect).
The film isn’t just a performance showcase, however: Caan knows how to use music in a movie, and he has a very strong visual sense. As in those terrific opening titles, excellent and sparing use is made of atmospheric still-photographs (colour and monochrome) as a storytelling tool, and fans of the elder Caan will appreciate the subtle son-to-father homages that dot the movie (as when Dallas gets a nasty head-wound and grinningly inspects it in a mirror – reproducing the last shot from Caan Sr’s finest hour, Karel Reisz’s The Gambler.)
The editing – by ‘Andy B ’ (son of Agnes??) – and Parmet’s widescreen cinematography are both major helps to this inexperienced movie-maker: Dallas 362, and Allan Mindel’s Milwaukee Minnesota, constitute a fantastic advert for ‘Fotokem ’ film stock with its vivid reds/oranges and deep shadowy blacks. It’s a promising debut – let’s just hope that the 27-year-old Caan matures enough next time out to avoid inserting quite so many shots of himself in the buff: outside porn, has any debutant director, male or female, ever included so much footage of themselves topless?
20th November, 2003
(seen 31st October : Ritzy, Brixton, London – London Film Festival)
click here for a full list of films covered at the 2003 London Film Festival
USA 2002 (premiered 2003) : Scott ‘Mad Skillz ’ CAAN : 90 mins