Feature Narrative Reviews

The Journeyman (2019) – 3 stars

Director: Peter Babakitis

Writer: Peter Babakitis

Actors: Peter Babakitis, Krystal Langevin, Madeline Merritt, Brian Narelle, Mark Petrakis, Douglas Van Leuven

Running time:  1hr 30mins

Since the onset of the Third Industrial Revolution, data has become the life-blood of capitalism and the key to how our societies function. Someone who can steal and manipulate data has assumed a shamanistic status in the eyes of mere mortals who are mere consumers of data. Writer and director Peter Babakitis’ feature The Journeyman gives us a portrait of one such shaman.

Taking the title role playing Lawrence himself, Babakitis plays an American corporate sleuth who, merely by taking his iPhone from his pocket and touching the screen, can magically access hidden secrets. Thanks to his delivery of an Apocalypse Now style interior monologue (with a little Philip Marlowe thrown in for good measure) throughout the film, we know who Lawrence is, and what he is thinking. He is a maverick mercenary, hard-boiled, and cynical – but also an hombre who once had ideals. In-keeping with his archetypal characteristics, before he retires, Lawrence has ‘one more job’ to do.

The film does swiftly throw us a curveball however. Usually the ‘last job’ sees a begrudging return to working with a long-time friend of employer – but as The Journeyman’s gorgeous, monochromatic opening scene unfolds, we learn Lawrence has betrayed his ‘corporation’. Alarms go off and the Feds arrive to arrest the boss leaving Lawrence to walk away – he is going freelance for his last great adventure.

A man of Lawrence’s talents does not have to wait long to find a new client – a German banker, who asks him to delve into a secret gold shipment from Russia to Zurich. It is when Lawrence departs from California to Europe that things get complicated. The story leads on to Athens and a myriad of plot shifts that involve the German banker, a Russian oligarch, a particularly corrupt member of the Greek establishment, and the anarchist resistance to the post-Financial Crisis austerity measures imposed on Greece by the EU – cuing up a romantic interest sub-plot with the black-clad anarchist heroine: Ariana (standout performer Krystal Langevin).

When juggling this many angles, it can be easy to fail to properly set up the many payoffs that will occur over the course of a spy-thriller, but the story is well-shot and well-paced to this end. For instance, long before arriving in Europe, this viewer’s political antennae had already been twitching since Lawrence – out on one of his shamanistic escapades – heard on the radio a sharp critique of the EU’s policy toward Greece. At the same time, when Lawrence takes leave of his girlfriend Rachel (the solid Madeline Merritt) we learn that she is an environmental activist – helpfully illustrated by home-made disinvest placards propped against the living room wall – further underscoring that Lawrence used to be, at least, sympathetic to progressive politics. The seeds are sown – maybe, I dare to dream, this is going to be a James Bond film for people who used to go and see Michael Moore documentaries.

As the plot unfolds in Athens, we learn a great deal about the Greek resistance to austerity through Ariana, as well as about the rise of fascism in the country. The film strongly makes the point that migrants, the target of the fascists, have been made the scapegoats of austerity. I found it strange that, in the script, the fascist group heavily inspired by Golden Dawn was renamed the ‘Sun Hawks’ – but then again, this film was produced long before the frailties of that party’s legal team were so drastically exposed last year. Another alteration sees the fictional Ariana connected to a rapper murdered by the fascists. As far as I can recall, the only rap musician assassinated by a member of Golden Dawn was Killah P, in 2013, but that is not the name here. Again, there may have been on-going legal issues, but it would have been a nice touch to have namechecked Killah P’s memory and work if possible.

Beyond these minor notes, the Athens scenes are great cinema and get across to us the sense of strangeness of someone from another country being caught up in street protests and political turmoil in a city they do not know well. As Lawrence’s involvement with the anarchist resistance deepens, there is a terrific scene where one of his magical tools – a memory stick, my how prehistoric that seems – is passed surreptitiously from activist to activist. This is a stand-out – conveying a sense of solidarity along with the power of social networks to disseminate data. True to the thriller genre, as the machinations of the Bad Guys unwind, there are break-ins and assassination attempts; these are efficiently handled – the fight scenes are pretty well done. The action is driven by a well-chosen soundtrack which serves to heighten the tension.

There are drawbacks with choosing to frame a political polemic as a thriller, however. Certain beats need to be met to maintain audience engagement, and the script requires a level of zip to avoid coming off as a lecture with occasional explosions. In this regard, the screenplay isn’t up to snuff. Every conversation seems to be composed entirely of aphorisms. It is as though Babakitis has kept a log of his deepest political insights over the years, and inserted every one of them into the script. This does make for some great one-liners, intentionally or otherwise – for instance, I particularly enjoyed the blunt assertion, “Hitler was an amateur” – however, broadly as a thriller, there is not enough to keep the adrenaline flowing, or feeling as though lives are supposed to be on the line. Rather, we have characters speaking as though they were Germaine de Staël and Stendhal in a literary salon.

Another of the issues with choosing this genre to tackle such weighty topics is that while the film seems willing to challenge the political establishment and hegemonic economic theories, it feels obliged throughout its runtime to adhere to another set of norms and conventions, which are arguably just as problematic. As an alpha male, for example, Lawrence is presented as having two sexual relationship options: to stay with Rachel the homely environmentalist or seek the excitement of partnering the gun-toting revolutionary Ariana at the barricades. The choice is Lawrence’s, as this is very much a Man’s World. On top of that, during the boat scenes (more on those to come), a particularly egregious example of male power and entitlement sees Lawrence immediately take command holding the steering wheel with Ariana (a super-fit athlete) obediently behind him. It might not seem much, but positions in vehicles matter culturally. The British once gave Ibn Saud (the first monarch and founder of Saudi Arabia) a Rolls-Royce when they were angling for a historic Saudi oil concession; he was insulted, the position of honour on the right was where the driver sat. The US by contrast gave him a left-hand drive Oldsmobile, and Aramco was born. In our case, Babakitis just lost any feminists in the audience.

What we do still get from the film’s positioning as a thriller is some excellent Bad Guys to pose against the film’s more radical ideals. Mark Petrakis as Stravos, the odious Greek establishment fixer, is terrific and seems to be having a ball. Douglas Van Leuven, as Zoric, the Russian oligarch is a suitably monstrous grotesque. Brian Narelle, as Waldenstein (whose name joins together images of Kurt Waldheim, the disgraced UN Secretary General and ex-Nazi; and Albrecht von Wallenstein, the mercenary bankroller of the Thirty Years War, the true journeyman) puts in a winning performance – all urbane charm overlaying a core of ice-cold menace.

The strength of these performances does mean that Babakitis’ own acting is regrettably shown up as being below par. The danger with helming any one-person project is that there is nobody to answer to when you make a poor call – and Babakitis taking up about 80% of the screen time despite not being a strong enough an actor to carry the production is one such call. While he has a warm and fine timbred voice, which works well for the internal monologue sections, in Lawrence’s scenes with Rachel and Ariana, he comes across as awkward and stiff. Possibly, his talents would be most effectively used as narrator of documentaries…

Similarly, the assassin who is employed to menace Lawrence is completely out of sorts – with the otherwise expert Bad Guys seeming to have recruited a fifty-something bag person with alcohol issues. Unfortunately, this same assassin plays a leading role in a scene where something goes seriously wrong with the film. There is a joke about Tolstoy that the night he completed War and Peace he woke from a bad dream shouting: I forgot to put the yacht race in. For some reason, maybe to do with the production schedule but which does not seem vital to the plot, Babakitis decided to include a speed boat chase – and opted to include some eye-wateringly bad budget CGI in order to realise it.

The boat’s image is keyed in so poorly that what we have is essentially less convincing than if Babakitis had filmed toy boats bobbing around in a bathtub. Coupled with the fixed grin and wooden acting of the assassin dominating the scene, the truly gruesome visuals seem to grind on for much longer than they do, and do a lot to cheapen the overall feel of the film. This is so disappointing, as it undermines all the hard work that the team had done earlier in the film in building a credible, progressive political thriller – the awfulness of the boat footage will be most people’s abiding memory of The Journeyman.

The chase is followed by a boat journey to one of the Greek islands where we are shown Lawrence in a back to rural idyll, again a Coppola analogy similar to Michael Corleone in Sicily except instead of Pacino walking through wheatfields we have Babakitis somewhat awkwardly picking pomegranates (eternal life/knowledge). Regrettably, the boat journey to and from the island is also filmed using CGI again to disastrous effect. This is a pity as it contains a scene which is obviously intended as a political epiphany for Lawrence – they pass a boat full of migrants. The power of the moment is lost as the viewer is still trying to come to terms with the oddity of the CGI. In fact, for this whole sequence, the production values slip. When Ariana and Lawrence beach their boat, Lawrence fails to even tie it up properly adding to the general feeling of slapdash absurdity.

With a little more technical guile, the film concludes with a series of sharp interview edits. Following clips of Yaris Varoufakis discussing the lack of democratic accountability of the European Central Bank, and Bernie Sanders speaking about the damage done to the Greek people by EU-driven austerity – the inclusion of which was a fine idea – I had a gripe with the manipulation of images. We are shown what purports to be Russia Today footage of a Putin press conference which has been tweaked so that it appears as though Zoric, one of our Bad Guys, is sitting next to Putin. I can understand the reasons, but – as well as contradicting the film’s approach to using real figures when addressing Greece’s fascist party – this is a dangerous road to take. Faking of images has contributed so much to both state and non-state actors’ attempts to distort historical truth – whatever the temptation – so taking this kind of stance on it is needlessly dangerous.

The Journeyman is a bold and worthy attempt to use the thriller genre to provide a progressive political take on our times. Babakitis has shown an impressive ability as a producer and director to carry off what must have been a difficult project to realise. Despite the movie’s many flaws, what does shine through is the director’s empathy and solidarity with the people of Greece and the scapegoated migrants on Greek soil during the imposition of austerity by EU capitalists. The data shaman almost worked their magic – the problem is the toy boats in the bathtub are now lodged forever deep in my psyche. By serendipity, Babakitis’ use of aphorism leaves us with a great metaphor for these plague times, he has Waldenstein in Faustian mode tell us: “money is a bacteria or virus, we are merely its hosts.” Maybe, the same applies to data.

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