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Debt Collector, The
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by Andrew Howe

"Another fine British crime drama"
4 stars

If you’re in a good mood and wouldn’t mind staying that way, you would be well advised to steer clear of The Debt Collector. It’s a brutal and harrowing affair, ramming its message home with the force of six-inches of razor-sharp steel, and it weaves a tale of rehabilitation, redemption and vengeance which is as unsettling as it is thought-provoking.

After an 18-year stint behind bars, career criminal Nicky Dryden (Billy Connolly) is walking the straight-and-narrow. He’s got a new wife, a new job (having discovered an affinity for art during his incarceration) and a new outlook, while the passage of time appears to have consigned his sins to distant memory. While presiding over an exhibition of his works, the detective who put him away, Gary Keltie (Ken Stott), stops by to offer his congratulations. This takes the form of plunging a knife into the eye of a sculpture, while informing Dryden’s new-found friends that this is what their host did to a 70 year-old woman two decades ago, for no better reason than to punish a member of her family who owed his boss money. The bulk of the film is devoted to chronicling Dryden’s increasingly volatile reactions to Keltie‘s continuing harassment, while fending off the unwelcome advances of an impressionable young thug named Flipper who has elected to model his life on Dryden’s criminal career path. It’s a slow-burn affair, awash in a sea of high emotion, and it works its way to a conclusion which is as shocking as it is inevitable.

British crime thrillers are a different breed to their American counterparts – The Long Good Friday, Get Carter and A Sense of Freedom are relatively low-key affairs when compared with the likes of Scarface, Heat and New Jack City, not the least because their protagonists view automatic weaponry with disdain, favouring the personal touch provided by knives, machetes and steel-capped boots. Populated by nasty, brutish thugs with impenetrable accents and appalling fashion sense, the best of these films feature a gritty immediacy which is, on occasion, downright chilling.

The Debt Collector is no exception, but what raises it above the everyday is its insistence on painting the issues in shades of grey. Dryden is a sympathetic character, a reformed man who treats his wife with respect and appears genuinely pained at the memory of his misdeeds. At first it’s surprisingly easy to view Keltie as the villain, because he appears to be needlessly harassing a man (in a rather spectacular fashion, I might add) who has paid his debt to society and wants nothing more than to be left alone to build a better life with his family. However, there comes a time when you realise that Dryden is undeniably guilty of the crimes of which he is accused, and that maybe, just maybe, there’s something to what Keltie is saying after all. I wouldn’t forgive someone who murdered a member of my family, no matter how many years had passed or how repentant they had become – I would want them to pay in blood, and the juxtaposition of these opposing but equally-valid viewpoints rests at the core of the film’s success.

Connolly seemed an unusual choice for the lead, since he is primarily known for his comedic roles. However, he is also an immensely likeable performer, which enables him to believably depict Dryden’s reformation. What is surprising is that he is equally capable of portraying Dryden’s darker side, to the extent that you never doubt that we are dealing with a man who is capable of cold-blooded violence should the need arise (his performance in the opening scene, set prior to Dryden’s arrest, is unnerving in the extreme).

Stott‘s portrait of Dryden’s driven, vengeful nemesis is equally memorable. Keltie is not a particularly likeable character, for he displays little in the way of social graces. However, as the film progresses we realise that he is not entirely unworthy of our sympathy, for he’s a man bowed by the weight of a life which appears to have passed him by. He grinds out his days in an unenviable occupation, while his commitment to his work gets him through the long and lonely nights. He lives with his mother (for whom he obviously harbours a great deal of affection) in a small and uninviting house, and there are few who would envy his enervating social life. When he creates a fictitious girlfriend to appease his mother’s gentle chiding it’s difficult not to be moved by his quiet resignation, all of which makes it that much harder to decide whether his fanatical resolve is unjustified.

The support is also worthy of praise – Francesca Annis (best remembered as Lady Jessica from Dune) is eminently believable as Dryden’s wife (an episode in which she is overcome with grief could be used to show many highly-paid actresses how it’s done), and Iain Robertson is suitably disturbing as the casually-malicious Flipper. Unfortunately, this latter character is the one aspect of the script which doesn’t quite gel – he appears to have been included to pad out the proceedings and drive the action towards the desired conclusion, and at times it reeks of being little more than a rather contrived plot device (there are two pivotal occasions when he directly, albeit unwittingly, escalates the tension between Dryden and Keltie, the latter of which is suspiciously coincidental). That being said, his actions make for some interesting (if not exactly original) observations on the negative side-effects of celebrity, and his absence would have denied us a remarkable scene in which he is called upon to answer for his crimes (it’s worth catching the film for this sequence alone, and the powerful emotions it evokes ensure it will not be easily forgotten).

The screenwriter also sees fit to script a reprehensible act for Keltie late in the piece which robs him of whatever sympathy he’s managed to earn, and while the time spent building his character ensures it’s not entirely unbelievable, I suspect it was included purely to lend credence to the film’s denouement.

Then again, it’s possible the film’s creators felt that there was always room for one more detour into depravity. Make no mistake – this is a bleak, disturbing vision that never allows a single ray of light to penetrate its lengthening shadows. When it’s not busy making you think about things you’d rather not have nesting in your psyche, it takes the time to serve up some swift, sickening violence which is as elegant as a row of shattered teeth. The one-two punch of physical and psychological brutality leaves you reeling, and puts most supposedly hard-edged crime dramas to shame.

The Debt Collector is not an enjoyable film, but it certainly knows how to make an impression. The absence of a traditional hero-villain structure leaves viewers to make their own decisions about the relative merits of the arguments espoused by the protagonists, and the gut-punch violence and oppressive atmosphere ensure it stays with you for longer than you might desire. However, everyone needs to be put through the wringer now and again, and if you’re going to do it to yourself then you could do far worse than this well-acted, contemplative effort.

Instead of brooding over the past, let The Debt Collector do it for you. It may not be an entirely pleasant experience, but I guarantee that, when it’s over, you’ll see things in an entirely different light.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=3449&reviewer=193
originally posted: 01/21/01 06:32:55
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User Comments

5/21/04 Dean Rapp very well done 4 stars
4/28/01 lee dark, brilliant and clever - well worth a look if not easily shocked 5 stars
1/26/00 Add Gritty movie with some great acting no classic but well worth a look. 4 stars
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