Howard Ford’s two previous films, The Dead and The Dead 2: India – made in collaboration with his brother Jon – were criticised by some for taking a rather xenophobic and imperialist approach to the zombie movie, as they trotted across the third world displaying it as an alien, dangerous and backward place for their western protagonists to explore. Now working as a solo director (I wonder what the story is there?), Ford would seem to have taken this approach as his USP. Never Let Go, set in an unnamed Morocco, is a fast paced, if somewhat hysterical tale of baby snatching, with nice British and American families falling victim to the shifty actions of Arabs and East Europeans.
Angela Dixon stars as Lisa Brennan, a woman in a clandestine relationship with a presidential candidate, who takes an unlikely vacation to Marrakesh – the first choice of holiday destination for single American women in this film’s weird universe. Straight away, everyone seems shifty – her too friendly cab driver who stops to make a dodgy deal with a friend, the people in bazaars… in fact, everyone. We already know that these people probably are shifty, as we’ve already seen a child snatching in the pre-credits sequence.
Sitting on the beach, she is distracted by another shifty Arab, and turns around to find her baby gone, snatched by several dodgy looking foreign types. Luckily – and in the first of the film’s many unlikely shifts – she turns out to be a retired special agent, somewhere between Jack Bauer and Jason Statham, and she’s soon off in pursuit of the kidnappers, leaving a trail of the dead and the maimed in her wake. That some of these dead seem to be innocent bystanders seems to bother Ford not one jot, and we are clearly meant to sympathise with her and sneer at typical foreign police bureaucrats when the local police chief not unreasonably wants to arrest her and discuss the alleged missing child afterwards. Instead, she escapes, police pistol in hand, and spends ages wandering around aimlessly before another series of plot fudges allow her to track the missing child and the kidnappers down. There’s then a final plot twist that has been rather too telegraphed and is entirely unconvincing. The idea that the main culprit, once exposed, would react in the way he does is utterly ludicrous.
Never Let Go is, it must be said, a slick and relentless film. If Ford is setting out his stall as an action movie – or action TV – director, then I’m sure that this will be a great selling point. He makes the most of the locations, switching effectively between claustrophobic streets and huge expanses of open space. And he never lets the film pause – it has a sense of urgency and a willingness not to allow plot discrepancies bog it down that is admirable. But the film is hampered by efforts to give its main character a back-story that she frankly doesn’t need, and exists only to set up a conspiracy theory that the film doesn’t have time to develop. If this was 24, all these plot twists and turns can be made to work, but here there just isn’t the time (the film is an admirably terse 85 minutes) and the build up to the final denouement seems more an unconvincing distraction than anything else.
Dixon, I fear, isn’t quite convincing as an action hero. She wears the same terse expression throughout – even before the baby is snatched – and fails to come across as a sympathetic, human character. While we are supposed to understand her ‘whatever it takes’ approach to saving her baby, the truth is that her actions are often wreckless and ruthless. But she’s only shooting foreigners, so I guess that’s OK.
And while Ford tries a little too hard to show that there are decent Arabs out there, the fact is that the film seems a little too keen to suggest that once you leave the ‘civilised’ world, then no one can be trusted and anything can happen. When Eli Roth did something similar in Hostel, he smartly inverted it by showing his Americans as ignorant, loud and culturally ignorant (before twisting it again be re-humanising them just before the bad shit started to happen); here, we really are given a clash of the thoroughly decent and the thoroughly unspeakable. It might a standard action movie simplification, but at least many of those films are so knowingly excessive that everyone becomes cartoonish, or – as in the aforementioned 24, the story allows more development and twists to make the xenophobia less certain. Here, it feels a little too on the nose.
Still, if you are looking for a tense, rollicking action film – and are not too worried about thinking about messages, subtexts and such – then this should fit the bill perfectly. Ford probably has a good directorial future ahead of him, but one with a better writer attached I hope.