Filmmakers seem to have a fixation with hitmen. No doubt this is because the addition of a contract killer creates the opportunity for just the right degree of tension, some violence, and a dash of psychological intrigue. Nevertheless, the formula can still produce idiosyncratic results, as Two Down, from Fizz and Ginger Films, proves. With backing from executive producers Stephen Fry and Derek Jacobi, the husband and wife team have created an absorbing drama with a very British flavour.
Matthew Butler Hart, the film’s director and co-writer, says they wanted to do something which involved three people together in a room, with both light and dark elements. Out of that grew this understated thriller, combining the influence of 1970s spy movies with a dry sense of humour.
The story begins when John, a contract killer, is shot during one of his assignments. He seeks out the home of another hitman, but when he arrives it transpires that the old man has died and the flat has been sold to a new owner. Desperate and losing blood, he takes Sophie, the lone resident of the flat, hostage until his brother can collect him. It is the perfect, Pinter-esque setup for a small cast – Sophie and John are soon joined by Luke, the Chinese takeaway delivery boy – to make the most of their claustrophobic surroundings. Six of the film’s twelve days of shooting were spent in the same flat; this process organically charges the film full of energy.
You can’t help but be instantly captivated by John. Alex Hassel’s performance is partway between a Bond villain’s private assassin and the suave impertinence of a Jude Law romantic hero. With his moustache and high collar, he is a visual hangover from the 1970s movies he emulates, though an odd, almost unbelievable contrast to his uptight and unmannered brother Sam, played by Nick Rhys.
Despite John’s charm, it is Sophie, played by the producer half of Fizz and Ginger, Tori Butler Hart, who is really intriguing. The opening minutes introduce her alongside all the accessories of a single woman living alone: a cat, a glass of wine, a bored phonecall to her mother, and a takeaway order for one. But she is more than a Bridget Jones in waiting. As her home is invaded, she takes events in her stride stoically. Butler Hart is remarkably controlled, conveying Sophie’s thoughts through just a flicker of the eyes or a piercing silence. Tiny details simultaneously flesh out the character and highlight how little we really know about her. She has nothing to cook herself for dinner, but just so happens to have more than one bottle of good whiskey lying around. She has a couple of side-jobs while training to be a counsellor, but is also somehow able to afford a gorgeous loft apartment.
Sophie’s past is, however, a secondary concern to the immediate problem that John is slowly dying on her armchair. This gives the film a strict timeframe as well as a pressing question to unravel: who shot him? We as the audience are immediately privy to conversations between the culprits, but it takes some time to put all the pieces together. This is where the script excels, dripfeeding information as John begins to open up in his weakened state. At the same time, we get a closer look at his motivations. A particularly interesting sequence blurs his memories of the army with the present reality as he watches a grenade roll across the floor.
Things get dark. But the comedy and domestic details keep it varied. Luke’s thinly-veiled crush on Sophie, her cat named Agatha, and the Crouch End greasy spoon in which John’s would-be assassins bide their time, all keep what could be an outlandish idea grounded in the London we know. The small team and low budget work to the advantage of this feature, keeping everything tightly focused. They could even have shaved off a little more time and an extra location at the end, which goes on a few minutes too long for my taste, making explicit the twist which the audience has already figured out and roaming dangerously close to Johnny English territory in the process.
It would be tempting to try and draw comparisons between Two Down and Kingsman, or perhaps more appropriately with 2010’s Wild Target. But what this tightly structured production really reminds me of is the TV show Inside No.9. If you like big twists and tension on a small canvas, Two Down is a masterful example. Fizz and Ginger Films clearly have much to offer British cinema.
We saw the film at the Oxford International Film Festival, the end of this film’s festival circuit. It premiered in April 2015 at Artemis Women in Action Film Festival and its first showing in the UK was at Manchester International Film Festival, where it won Best UK film. It will be released in America in June on Flix Premiere, they are still in talks about sales in the UK but it will be on at the BFI’s Film London Showcase and is having a theatrical screening in the Cayman Islands in July.
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