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Double Down (2005)
~Review by Grawlix (July 2019)
There’s nothing quite like a (would-be) artist driven by a higher purpose. One who honestly believes their message or inspiration is so powerful on its own that it would easily outshine petty deficiencies in talent, skill, or means. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Neil Breen. An architect and/or real estate agent by trade (it’s unclear if he still holds a day job) with a drive to make films so powerful, that he’ll damn well do everything himself if necessary. In Double Down, it was apparently necessary, as he’s credited as Director, Writer, Editor, Musical Director, Production Designer, Catering, and more besides (Lighting, and Hair & Makeup are simply listed as “None”, possibly as a token nod to humility.) Breen also stars, along with a several reels of stock footage and not much else. Proudly spurning the Hollywood machine, and its polluting influence, he’s about as independent as filmmaking gets though it’s unlikely the Hollywood machine would have him anyway. Another point of pride for Breen is that he never went to film school and boy does it show.
So, what’s the message of Double Down that’s so important? I have no idea. The damn thing is 93 minutes long and here I sit, the closing credits have rolled, and I feel like I’m still waiting for the movie to actually begin. What’s it even about? I’m not too sure about that either but I’ll try to explain as best I can. Breen plays Aaron Brand. Brand is a (deep breath, now) decorated military combat veteran turned computer hacker. So great are his hacking skills that he is able to almost instantly gain control of anything that runs on electricity, from financial markets, to urban infrastructure, to entire military branches. It also enables him to live completely off the grid, and through means not fully explained (get used to this) he is also protected by a sort of technological shield that is capable of exploding the brains of those who might do him harm. Brand is also a talented biochemist and as an additional failsafe, he’s planted bio-bombs in major cities wired to a digital dead man’s switch, so no governments dare try to do him harm. All the world’s governments know about this, by the way, as do most news agencies, though they’ve apparently all decided to keep it quiet, allowing Brand to move about in complete anonymity. Oh, he has cybernetic implants too. It’s not totally clear what they do, but he has them. It’s also not explained how he got them, or from whom. For all we know, he implanted them himself.
He’s pretty much the ultimate sovereign citizen. He puts his skills to use as a mercenary, though his motivations are… inscrutable. He has no qualms about killing people (he is, naturally, more than capable at tradecraft) and his prior exploits have made him millions of dollars, but he donates it all to charity, preferring to live out of his car, subsisting solely on canned tuna fish and regularly waking up face down in the gravel, a state of affairs that does not perturb him in the slightest. The closest thing the film offers to character motivation is the assassination of his fiancé/childhood sweetheart in an attempt to break his spirit. Basically, if Buckaroo Banzai was played totally straight and had a baby with the version of Steven Seagal that Steven Seagal believes himself to be, that would be but a pale shadow of the almighty Gary Sue power of Aaron Brand.
It may seem as though I just described a character and not the plot, but for literally the first hour of the movie (two thirds of the running time) the character pretty much is the plot. There are endless scenes of Brand tapping away on multiple laptops and speaking cryptic phrases into flip phones, interspersed with stock footage only tangentially related to what Brand, in voiceover, is telling us he’s doing. Yes, telling, always telling, because the movie couldn’t hope to have the wherewithal necessary to show much of anything. Occasionally it diverges into a flashback of Brand with his fiancé, and occasionally he has a vision of her, with which he freely converses and interacts, asking forgiveness or… something. At one point he encounters an old man who may or may not be God, who proclaims Brand as “The One” and hands him a rock that apparently confers Messianic powers upon him. This turns out to be way less important than you might think.
The actual plot, such as it is, involves shutting down the Las Vegas Strip, though why and for whom is never made clear. Other than Vegas, the movie is noticeably coy about invoking any sort of specific places, people, or things, I guess in an attempt to give it a timeless quality, but this lack of specificity is so assiduous that the more likely explanation is that Breen couldn’t be asked to do even a modicum of research. It’s always “companies” or “cities” or “governments” or “armies” or (my personal favorite) simply “people”, all of which apparently don’t know anywhere near as much about any given topic as Brand does. It doesn’t help that the voiceover is done so incompetently (more on this in a second) that it’s never quite clear if the Brand character is pontificating on human nature or warfare or technology, or if it’s Breen just breaking the fourth wall, though one can easily get the sense that this particular ambiguity is deliberate. When one of the few other speaking characters refers to Brand as a genius, it really feels like Breen is unironically patting himself on the back for his insights.
From a technical standpoint, the movie is a disaster in almost every measurable way, playing at about the level of a home movie where leaving the lens cap on might have actually been an improvement. Some of the camera angles and shot selections wouldn’t be that bad if they actually accomplished anything but they fail to enhance the action simply because there’s no action to enhance. Breen is on screen alone for most of the film and he’s hardly a fountain of charisma. He moves like an arthritic giraffe in the few scenes that show him in motion (climbing over rocks in the Nevada desert, presumably) and thanks to a totally unnecessary nude scene (Thanks, Neil) I can confirm that he sports the doughy physique of a man who spends most of his time off his feet. The acting is not merely amateurish, but disinterestedly, distractedly amateurish, as if the supporting cast would rather be doing anything other than standing in front of Breen’s camera. And everyone, Breen included (who was the sole writer, remember) delivers their lines as if they’re just seeing them for the first time; retakes either not being factored into the budget, or else were considered something only other, “Hollywood-insider” directors do. Breen also delivers his dialog and documentary-esque voiceover with the same stilted, near-monotone that makes the Adobe Reader’s text-to-speech function sound like Anthony Hopkins, and makes it impossible to tell if he’s talking directly to the viewer or to another character. His mercifully few attempts at actual emoting are cringingly painful. The music is another thing that might’ve worked in a different context, it’s simplistic but suitably ambient and unsettling, but Breen uses the same pieces over and over, until they feel as annoying and out of place as, well, pretty much everything else in the movie. It’s unclear if Breen composed the soundtrack himself or just raided public domain libraries.
I’ve come to realize that I’ve arrived a bit late to the Neil Breen blanket party as several other online outlets have already given him a thorough excoriating, but I swear I discovered him on my own and I made sure that I knew nothing about Double Down (or any of his other films, of which, as of this writing, there are four) going in and I’m so glad I did. Unlike other famously bad filmmakers like Tommy Wiseau or Uwe Boll who have (or had) managed, somehow, to weasel their way into the major industry machine, Breen, by consequence or design, has remained resolutely on the outside while still managing to conjure up enough notoriety to get some (limited, to be sure) theatrical exposure for his subsequent films. I’m genuinely curious to see how (or if) he’s managed to develop, especially considering that some of the technical limitations of indie filmmaking in 2005 have only become easier and more accessible in subsequent years. On the other hand, this is a guy who writes thinly veiled self-inserts as being nearly godlike in their knowledge and abilities and, as far as I know, still has nothing but contempt for any traditional methods of film making, so there’s a good chance that he doesn’t even feel it’s necessary (or even possible) to improve. What wonders the future surely doth hold.
Final Grade: F
A movie this bad will naturally enter the so-bad-it’s-good conversation, but honestly, even ironically, it’s tough to enjoy Double Down. I guess I kind of enjoyed it, in that weird way critics can enjoy terrible movies, because I knew it’d give me a lot of material. But the movie is so indolent, so inept, and so incomprehensible that in many ways it barely qualifies as a movie at all. Forget being a train wreck, this train never leaves the station, to the point, in fact, where you’d question it could even be considered a train at all.
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