Tuesday, May 21, 2024

‘Damaged’ is Beyond Repair

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Damaged feels like the cinematic equivalent of a James Patterson novel. Only Patterson is capable of breathless hysterics that lend themselves to literary camp occasionally. However, Terry McDonough, a television director making his film debut, is so competent that the clod-hopping narrative feels sluggish and dull despite the polished look of it all.

The irony is that if McDonough had been less competent, Damaged might have been a howler of a good time. A tilt one way or the other would have made Damaged more exciting if only because it would rise above staid mediocrity. Instead, we’re saddled with a dour downward spiral of tropes and ham-fisted clues among a sea of older men and the younger women unfortunate enough to be in a relationship with them.

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Glen (Giannini Capaldi) and Dan (Samuel L. Jackson) investigate the crime scene.

Mysteries are rarely about the mystery but about the characters involved in it. I’ve read and watched many predictable and unpredictable mysteries and come away with a grin on my face. Yet, the screenplay by Koji Steven Sakai, Gianni Capaldi, and Paul Aniello focuses on neither the mystery nor the characters. It is an apparent star vehicle for Capaldi, who co-wrote, co-produced, and starred in Damaged.

What ails Damaged isn’t the fact that it’s a star vehicle. It’s the same thing that ails so many streaming and theatrical releases these days: it’s all plot and no story. Only in the case of Damaged is it also hobbled by a plot and mystery that feels so undercooked that there’s a danger of salmonella. There’s a serial killer in Scotland whose method of killing seems similar to a serial killer from Chicago. Enter Detective Dan Lawson (Samuel L. Jackson), the functioning alcoholic cop who failed to capture the killer when he was in the US and wants another crack.

A cynical person would accuse Damaged of being Copganda, but truthfully, there’s so much rampant ineptitude among the officers and a disturbing lack of procedure or oversight that, in more capable hands, it would be a damning indictment of modern policing.

Sadly, Damaged isn’t interested in anything remotely as interesting as being observant. It’s too busy wallowing in humorless distraction to broach anything as digestible as a point. Still, McDonough and the script toss us a bone with Vincent Cassel as the impossibly named Walker Bravo. All throughout Damaged, little sparks of life threaten to ignite, like the name Walker Bravo, hinting at a much more thrilling story underneath all this visual pedantry.

Set in Scottland, Damaged is a stereotypical police procedural that knows the music but doesn’t know what notes to play. Yet, I found some of the cultural differences fascinating. Moments such as when one of the police officers announced, “If the suspect flees, do not pursue. We can not have armed officers on a public street.” Moments like these, more than driving on the wrong side of the road, had me feeling, as an American, as if I had stepped through the looking glass.

Damaged wastes so much time, showing how both of its leads, Jackson’s Dan and Capaldi’s Glen, are damaged that it forgets to build suspense. There are no clues to follow, no real sense of a narrative thread. At one point midway through the film, they attempt to bring Cassel’s Walker into the case. Walker asks them about the clues, and they mention a key with Andrea Ridolfi’s score revving up underneath the moment.

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Glen (Capaldi) identifies himself.

The problem is this is the first we hear of this vital clue. Damaged is filled with moments like this, as if whole scenes are missing or left on the editing floor, all so McDonough can stumble towards his big twist of an ending. The solution to the mystery is the kind that, if done right, proves Robert McKee’s sage advice, “Wow them in the end and they’ll forgive you everything else.” Except it’s not done right, so it’s less of a cause for forgiveness and more of a reason for scorn and damnation.

At ninety minutes, Damaged feels like three hours. The script by committee is so fractured and thematically unkempt that an actor like Samuel L. Jackson feels adrift. Yet, there are moments where Jackson shows life despite the jumbled script. His focus on the character being spoken to and not the character speaking is his way of showing his detective’s attention to detail rather than McDonough’s often showy and clumsy attempts. Jackson uses his performance to imply, while McDonough and his screenwriters have scenes that have him showing up to a crime scene drunk, rattling off observations, and then leaving in a show of lazy character exposition. Contrast that scene with Jackson’s small and intelligent acting choices, showing Jackson refusing to phone it in, even in a movie so far beneath his weight class.

Capaldi isn’t bad; it’s just that despite this being a vehicle for his talents, he spends most of the time in a role Vincent Cassel could do in his sleep. The sad, broken man who’s lost the love of his life is a role that looks easy. But it’s only when you see it done poorly that you realize how hard it is to do well. Capaldi keeps playing the same woebegone grief-stricken note throughout Damaged, to the point that we never feel the escalation when he’s driven to the brink.

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Detective Dan Lawson (Jackson) is hot on the trail.

Matthias Pötsch’s camera captures the Scottish countryside and lends a gloss of melancholy to the gory proceedings. However, McDonough’s direction is so directionless that Potsch’s frames, while polished, are even recording information because there is no information to record. There’s no throughline; it’s just an endless series of mopey middle-aged men struggling with depression, and while that is a vibe, in McDonough’s hands, it is little more than a feeling hinted at from a postcard.

Damaged is a whodunnit that doesn’t play fair and, weirdly enough, doesn’t seem interested in making us care who did it. But then they do tell us who did it, and it’s the kind of bonkers reveal that you would expect to see in a movie parodying movies like Damaged. The only difference is in the parody movie; they’d want you to laugh. 

Images courtesy of Lionsgate

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