After being sentenced to two years for manslaughter, a new convict (George Basha) battles his fellow inmates and the prison’s warden (David Field).
I expect some of my fellow critics will attack George Basha’s latest vehicle like a brutal guard with an axe to grind. So much of this Australian caged-man flick is derivative of the 'Grey Bar Hotel’ genre that it’s less a film about prison life than it is about prison films. But I love the posturing, politics and inherent brutality of incarceration pics and Convict is a pretty good one.
It’s less a film about prison life than it is about prison films
Basha has established himself as somewhat of an urban auteur, born out of the tough ethnic enclaves of Sydney’s western suburbs. His 2009 script for The Combination became the directorial debut of actor David Field, who returns to guide Basha on this latest effort. (The pair share a co-directing credit.) That film was steeped in an ultra-toughness that convincingly conveyed the harsh realities of life amongst the ex-cons and drug runners of Sydney’s roughest streets. That it was also a commercially savvy reworking of John Singleton’s Boyz 'n the Hood was not lost on audiences or the local film industry.
Convict revisits similar themes of racial tension, macho violence and the struggles of the decent man, this time within the tense confines of a maximum security facility. (The defunct Parramatta Jail complex that for over a century was one of Australia’s harshest prisons serves as the primary location).
The earliest sign that the narrative will follow a familiar path is the crime that puts Basha, as returned serviceman Ray Francis, behind bars. Having just proposed to his gal, Kelly (Millie Rose Heywood), he must defend her honour against two yobbo hoons; after their fight, one doesn’t get up, and Ray, also a reformed ex-con, is sentenced to 18 months. Simon West’s Con Air, in which Nicholas Cage’s bad boy-turned-US-ranger beats down on some hillbillies for the same indiscretion and earns himself a stint, was the clear inspiration for Basha’s opening.
From here, the beats play out reliably. Ray tries to steer clear of trouble but is soon a pawn in the tensions between Middle Eastern, Islander and Aboriginal gangs. (Kudos to the casting team who assembled real ex-prisoners to populate the crowd scenes alongside convincing tough-guy character actors Tony Ryan, Johny Nasser, Peter Samaak and the terrifying Luke Allen). Ray develops a Shawshank-like friendship with lifer David (a terrific Richard Green), all the while butting heads with brutal guard Ricko (Brian Ellison, channelling Strother Martin in Cool Hand Luke and Brian Dennehy in First Blood), the muscle who carries out the commands of the warden (a scenery-chewing Field, who has a ball while drawing inspiration from Donald Sutherland’s quietly-spoken sadist in the Sylvester Stallone pic, Lock Up). Fans will pinpoint echoes of Escape from Alcatraz, Midnight Express, American Me and A Prophet as further sources of influence.
Basha and Field (who made his acting debut in John Hillcoat’s seminal prison film, Ghosts... of the Civil Dead), direct with a confident synergy, even if they fall short of giving the film its own idiosyncratic voice and style. The best Australian jail films, notably Chopper, Stir and Hoodwink, stand out from the genre; Convict, much like Ray himself, seems determined to blend in. But the production certainly confirms Basha is a talent worth watching; as well as bringing an often undervalued multicultural perspective to the Australian film landscape, he also has a solid understanding of the expectations of young urban male audiences. Convict speaks to their mindset and experience with a clear, unpretentious vocabulary.