8 January 2003 | FilmFlaneur
so-so straight to video thriller
With its stereotypical plot, few strong characters, one or two sexy female co-leads, set pieces and bittersweet resolution, Protection is exactly the sort of film done better by the thriller factories of Hong Kong and Japan, where mood and style frequently transcend standard genre content. That's not to say that director John Flynn hasn't been successful in such tough territory before, notably with the successful and hardboiled The Outfit (1974), then Bestseller (1987). But too often he has churned out such cinematic tosh as Brainscan (1994) - although in fairness the recent Final Guardian has garnered excellent feedback. This film stars one of the lesser Baldwin brothers, Stephen, in the central role. As Salavatore ('Sal') Veronica, a mobster in enforced hiding, Baldwin is suitably intimidating being menacingly husky and monolithic in equal measure. (He also sports an odd sub-Travolta haircut, ending in a ducktail.) Having squealed on his Mafia friends he is now ensconced within the Federal Witness Protection Programme with his wife and sonin a safe house by the shore, trying to avoid the inevitable contract on his head.
Until now, Sal's life has been single-mindedly devoted to ruthlessness and danger, and he quickly finds his enforced existence unsatisfactory. "Life here is too easy." He intones regretfully. "It makes you lose your instincts - go soft." Those instincts are to carry on where he left off, and soon he is taking an active interest in a housing project, begun by nice-but-naïve neighbour, real estate agent Ted (Peter Gallagher) as well as conducting an affair. Even with that haircut, women, it seems, find Sal's testosterone-fuelled business drive and generally unblinking manner in conversation irresistible. That Sal's idea of 'laying low' is not everyone's quickly becomes apparent. The suggestions and warnings from the Protection Programme representative (here seen more often than not as a vaguely-threatening-someone wrapped in a big overcoat) are ineffectual. After taking a share in Ted's pet dream of housing for the poor, Sal promptly approaches Lars Lujak (Aron Tager), the toughest boss in town, for finance. He also menaces a private eye tracking his romantic liaison, travels to Las Vegas for a raunchy few days with a bewildered Ted, and noisily breaks up a strike at the project's building site. Throughout all this his decision just to abbreviate his original name, rather than change it completely to avoid discovery, is less than convincing. Not surprisingly, his old comrades in crime discover where their stool pigeon is holed up and promptly send a warm reception. Meanwhile, Lujak tries to muscle in on the housing deal...
There are few surprises in Flynn's film, shot rather as if it expected to rush straight to video from the first. Although it gains somewhat from location filming, there's nothing sufficient to lift proceedings from the rut of lurking violence and macho play-offs, all part and parcel of the warring hoodlums sub genre. Even the set pieces (the initial restaurant shoot out, Sal's strike breaking and the final confrontation in the park) seem staged half-heartedly. Perhaps the director, sensing that the material was hardly inspiring, determined on just creating a modest yarn with a minimum of fuss. It's certainly the type of movie that would look better in old-fashioned black and white.
Sal's cold dalliance with the wife of a neighbour, which flares briefly - seeming as if it might thereby introduce a subplot laying bare his emotional barrenness - fades away in a final moment of bathos. Embracing his conquest, he releases her back to the bosom of her family saying "Your husband - *he's* the tough guy. You are lucky to have each other." Such words, from one who has been so self-centred throughout, sound unconvincing, to say the least. There's a echoing incongruity in Sal's own marriage. His wife Gina (Katie Griffin) has a lot to say at the beginning of the film about his attitude and commitment. As the film proceeds, Sal risks all in a high profile business venture with a well-known local underworld figure, even taking Ted away for a raunchy boy's weekend in Vegas. Gina's silence on the matter is baffling, as is her mute acceptance of the final relocation.
Sal's new partner, Ted, provides a contrast to the mobster. Sal is selfish, aggressive, and cool. Ted is none of those things, and although his business career is borne along on the tide of Sal's vaulting ambition, his doubts grow with each succeeding phase. It is he who threatens to bring in the DA when the building project encounters corruption, oblivious to the likely consequences. Strangely, although Sal shows no particular warmth for his new friend, seeing him as one more assistant on the path of self-aggrandisement, Ted conceives a loyalty, and a proximity, which leads him close to death when the hitmen finally come to town. Quickly out of his depth (a fact articulated by the loathsome Lujak, who ironically faces a similar demotion in the eyes of the arriving killers) Ted is eventually as redundant as a 'knife brought to a gunfight', to use Sal's ominous phrase at Vegas.
If Protection has a point to make, then it is about the good use to which evil can be channelled. For whatever reason, Sal works hard to make Ted's altruistic building project a reality, hopefully to benefit the poorer families of the district. On the tough guy's departure, things are well underway, even though the continued existence of Lujak throws a shadow over future proceedings. Ironically, it is Sal's uncharacteristic failure to shoot the fat crook, which leaves this final question mark. When he is driven off to his own uncertain future, he leaves Ted behind to pick up the pieces. Sal's presence has been shown a blessing and curse but by the time the final credits roll, this viewer at least remained largely indifferent to which it was.