When 19 year-old JR (Brenton Thwaites) goes to jail for a minor crime, he quickly faces the harsh realities of prison life. He soon finds protection with Australia's most notorious criminal, Brendan Lynch (Ewan McGregor). However, he will have to pay a high price for it, as Lynche's crew have plans for their young protégé.

A Jnr. Prophet.

Son of a Gun is about how an old dog educates a young pup in the trick of grand theft and life on the run on the other side of the law. If you know that story, and let’s face it, you probably do, you already have an idea about how this handsomely mounted crime thriller from Australian debut director Julius Avery might end. But in the parlance of crooks, I’m not sure you would have a serious problem with that. You get the sense that Avery wants you in on the job. Avery is mining from a motherload of crime genre character riffs and plot set-ups and a certain ironic distance on the scheming double-crossing thieving action is part of the game. No wonder that here chess plays a role as both metaphor and plot device.

Still, this isn’t Tarantino lite. There’s little verbal gymnastics even if Avery seems to have a taste for the poetic possibilities of crim vernacular and the odd pun. Avery enjoys his own cleverness; the title tells you that (and I think he wants you to enjoy too, and I have to admit, I certainly did).

It’s a movie of contradictory impulses and tones. There are serious beats here are at odds with the what’s-gonna-happen-next-caper playfulness of the film’s framework. The sudden flashes of harsh violence and the glum ugliness of certain characters seem to have been spawned in a grittier, harsher, nastier movie. It’s by turns romantic and movie-land optimistic and crushingly cynical.  Everyone here is a seriously limited human being, which feels true to the criminal milieu but I don’t think Avery knows or cares much for them; they’re pawns in the movie chessboard and Avery has an end play ready for each of them.

In the plot, 19-year-old JR (Bredan Thwaites) lands in prison on a six month bit. (The crime is not specified, which let’s face it, is cheating a little.) He’s not inside 10 minutes before he recognises Brendan (Ewan McGregor), a famed criminal who’s doing 25 years. They sort of bond over chess, but in one of the film’s many calculated ironies, it’s the tribal warfare of prison life that brings them truly together. Let’s just say it has something to do with sexual violence and score settling. So now JR, alienated, scared and in the thrall of a twinkled eye Brendan, has a debt to repay. Once out, JR is the lynchpin in an ingenious escape plot designed to spring Brendan and a couple of his mates from the nick and it involves a hijacked joyride helicopter and some military standard ordinance. This is one of several outstanding action set pieces in the movie, mostly because Avery and co. have a talent for combining kinetic thrills, humour and elaborate choreography of men and machines in surprising ways.

Everyone works for someone in this movie (and everyone has a private agenda too... chess metaphor, anyone?). Brendan owes Sam (Jacek Koman), a Russian mobster. Once out, Brendan plans an elaborate heist – with Sam’s collateral – aimed at divesting freshly minted gold bars from a Kalgoorlie mine.  

JR is along for the ride until he meets Tasha (Alicia Vikander). She works for Sam but the arrangement is sinister. She’s looking for a way out. Tasha is hard-boiled and soft on JR. Brendan, suspecting deadly intrigue on Sam’s part, doesn’t approve of this love interest. But JR, who is, to be honest, a bit of dolt and slow learner, doesn’t care. Avery and John Collee (who collaborated on the screenplay and serves as executive producer) provide romantic interludes and backstory for Tasha and JR. He can’t swim and he’s dad beat him up. She has a dream to start again, where her sex isn’t part of the deal. There’s even a cornball night swim and an even cornier moment set in a Chinese restaurant involving Tasha schooling JR in the art of eating with chopsticks. Thankfully, Avery doesn’t waste too much time on this. The last section of the film is all twists, biff and bang with a climax that gives new meaning to honour among thieves.

I’ve read that Avery is an admirer of Michael Mann. I’ve no idea whether that’s true but it sure is a reference that critics have been quick to mobilise. Like all the best flattery (I am an on the record unapologetic fan of Mann’s), it’s both apt and embarrassing. Apt because, like Mann, Avery shoots in a style that’s immediate and essentially realist. And like Mann, he is engrossed in the surface details of criminal life: the white walled indignity of prison life with its cavity searches, predators and clanging doors is harrowing here and the procedural details of robbery and pursuit have the vivid excitement of the best reportage. Yet, like all such comparisons, it’s bogus on close scrutiny; Mann would never apologise for his sociopathic characters the way Avery does. Son of a Gun’s sensibility seems closer to the farcical genre-play of a Guy Ritchie without the dumb gimmicks.

What’s best about the film are its incidental pleasures, like the hilarious scene where JR is schooled in heavy weaponry by a stoned-on ecstasy-deadbeat (played with goofy charm by the always fine Damon Herriman), or where Brendan tortures a henchman by chucking him a deep freeze, or the breathless robbery and car chase. Still, in the end, it’s not a movie of character but plot. Its excitement is waiting for the next elaborate move and waiting to see how it plays out.