Part of an occasional series in which Spank The Monkey travels to foreign countries, watches films in unfamiliar languages, and then complains about not understanding them
I’m back in the UAE: you don’t know how lucky you be, boy. The last time I came here I stayed in Abu Dhabi, which despite its exotic trappings is still recognisably a city on 21st century planet Earth. This time, though, I’m in Dubai, and it’s a different story. Cricket writer Andy Zaltzman described it only last week as “an architectural and lifestyle fantasy built on literal, economic and metaphorical sand,” and that strikes me as pretty much spot on. It’s hard to find a better symbol of Dubai’s almost sci-fi weirdness than The World, a collection of man-made island resorts in the shape of a scale model of the earth’s land masses: they began terraforming them out of literal sand in 2003, but put the project on hold six years later once the economic and metaphorical part of Zaltzman’s analysis became apparent.
Still, you can’t fault Dubai’s ambition when it comes to construction projects. It’s just a shame that the same can’t be said for their film industry. The Wikipedia page on UAE cinema is so thin, it can list their entire output by name. So in order to see Arabic language films in Dubai, we have to rely on imports from Egypt, which was also the case on my Abu Dhabi trip. But let’s face it, since last year the Egyptians have been going through some chaotic upheavals. Imagine the stories they can tell now!
Ah. I must admit I wasn’t expecting that story.
It never ends well whenever I go to see an unsubtitled comedy for Monoglot Movie Club, and that certainly applies to Tom & Jimmy. In fact, the official synopsis above falls short of the true horror lurking within. We’re first introduced to Tom as a child: he’s oversized and clumsy, terrifying his parents and destroying everything in his path. Dissolve to the present day, and he’s now being played by Hani Ramzi in the most shameful way possible: cheeks padded with cotton wool, drooling, gurning and still destroying everything in his path. He’s currently doing all of that in an ill-advised job as a toyshop sales assistant, when a child called Jessie (Jana) arrives with her bodyguards looking for something to amuse her. So this is the real synopsis of Tom & Jimmy: it’s a comic movie of a little girl who buys a mentally retarded man as a pet.
Jessie is the daughter – or possibly some other relative – of Jimmy (Hassan Hosny), a very important man for reasons I never quite worked out. He seems to be big enough to hold regular press conferences in front of an array of microphones covered with logos cut out from the homepages of every major news organisation on the planet. He doesn’t appear to be particularly bright, though: he first encounters Tom while watching Titanic on his 3D TV, and becomes convinced he’s a character in the film. Tom hangs around the house and proceeds to embarrass Jimmy during a number of high-profile public appearances, because that’s what his kind does, obviously.
Yes, yes, I’m aware that attitudes to disability vary greatly across geographic borders, but still … Tom is a fairly horrid character whichever way you look at him: whether he’s filling Jimmy’s mouthwash bottle with bleach, or setting a kidnapper on fire, his behaviour always adds an unpleasant edge to what you can only assume is meant to be a kids’ film. (And in case you missed that throwaway detail, I said kidnapper, meaning that Tom gets to redeem himself at the climax by rescuing Jessie. Are all children in Egyptian comedies just kidnap fodder? From the evidence of this film, and Amn Dawlat, which I saw in Abu Dhabi, it certainly looks that way.)
You could possibly forgive Tom & Jimmy all of this if it managed to be funny once in a while, even just on a transgressive level. But director Akram Fareed doesn’t appear to have any flair for the genre at all, using cartoon-style music and zany sound effects to emphasise every punchline. There’s one slapstick setpiece involving Jimmy in the bath, an escaped frog, a pushcart and a badly-fitted stair carpet that takes so long to set up, you assume that there has to be some sort of subversion of expectations about to happen: but no.
There’s nothing wrong with the sort of comedy in which powerful people are accidentally cut down to size by dimwits. These days, screenwriters have to find ways to justify their characters’ dimwittery, such as making them ‘funny foreigner’ caricatures like Borat, Bruno or Žižek. The problem with Tom & Jimmy is that it depicts Tom not as a clown, but as a person with an actual learning disability, and then proceeds to ask us to laugh at his stupidity anyway. And then at the end, when Jessie and Jimmy start to spend more time together after the kidnap attempt, we’re asked to feel pathos for Tom as he’s no longer her favourite. You can go so far with trying to justify Ramzi’s performance, but when he decides to go Full Gervais, a line is irrevocably crossed.
Still, as I noted in my earlier Abu Dhabi piece, family comedies aren’t the most popular genre in UAE cinemas. More often than not, they’re full of action movies, including the sort of video shop bottom shelf fodder that barely sees the light of a projector in most other countries. At the moment, there are several Hong Kong thrillers in the Dubai multiplexes, all featuring big stars well past their peak: Andy Lau in Switch (partly filmed here), Jet Li in Badges Of Fury, Jackie Chan in 1911. If the trailers I saw in the cinemas here are anything to go by, they’re getting the English dubbed versions, leading to the peculiar sight of Jackie Chan demanding the overthrow of the Emperors while doing a Hugh Grant impersonation. Still, none of them look as bad as A Common Man, which features some of the worst acting ever accompanied by the caption “Academy Award Winner…”
So, with all this demand for action films, are there any local ones on offer? Happily for this article, the answer is yes. Qalb Al Assad, like Tom & Jimmy, was one of the big post-Ramadan holiday releases in Egypt this summer, only now making its way into the UAE. And there are plenty of differences between this production and the Egyptian comedy films I’ve been watching up till now. For one thing, the child abduction takes place at the beginning rather than the end, which makes for a refreshing change.
After a brief introduction in which we see our hero Fares (Mohamed Ramadan – now that’s a name for an Islamic movie star) being shot in the chest, we flash back to the defining moment of his childlhood, when a careless blind relative accidentally allows young Fares to be taken away by a man with a bag of sweets and a cheeky little smile. Fortunately, it turns out that the man is a lion tamer rather than a nonce, and he and his wife bring the boy up as their own. Now in adulthood, Fares is a small-time thief with a fancy haircut, fencing his stolen goods to the lion tamer’s wife, and using one of their animals to make some extra money posing with tourists. (The title translates as Lion Heart, just in case the symbolism wasn’t clear enough.)
So how do we get from here to Fares getting shot? The problems all start when he accidentally steals a phone from the second-in-command of a gunrunning operation. By coincidence, the boss of the gunrunners is played by Hassan Hosny, aka Jimmy from the previously reviewed film. He tracks down Fares and initially has him smacked around a bit, but gradually comes to appreciate the cut of his jib and decides to employ him instead. Fares’ first assignment is a roaring success, as he manages to uncover a traitor within the organisation. But then he’s asked to take on a more morally dubious job, and is forced to develop a conscience for the first time in his life.
Considering how many details in the above summary I’ve possibly got wrong – in particular, the general acceptance of Fares’ involuntary adoption is a bit peculiar – it turns out that Qalb Al Assad isn’t that bad a thriller at all. The balance between action scenes and character development seems about right, and you never feel that there’s too much of one rather than the other. There are melodramatic touches, notably in the way Fares ends up torn between the affections of his girlfriend and those of the boss’ wife: but they’re never pushed so far over the top as to take you out of the story.
It’s not a flawless film. Like every other modern Egyptian movie I’ve seen, it includes a big song-and-dance number – here, it’s a party scene where Fares ends up rapping alongside the live band, and it doesn’t quite fit in tonally with the rest of the movie. The handling of the violence is curiously inconsistent: sometimes it’s Bollywood-style thwacking of human bodies through walls and furniture, whereas in other scenes there’s a definite feel of punches being pulled. And some of the problems are just cultural issues: when Fares’ girlfriend is being tormented by the baddies, the furthest they can go on screen is some overenthusiastic neck-licking. (This is, after all, the country that recently gave an 18+ rating to Richard Curtis’ anodyne About Time for its sexual content.)
But over the two hours, the story works just fine. There are a couple of smart twists in the plotting that take you by surprise, although I’m prepared to admit there’s every possibility that they were laid out in plain sight in all that dialogue I didn’t understand. Still, that’s the big thing that Qalb Al Assad has over Tom & Jimmy: it doesn’t try to insult your intelligence, or pretend that you don’t have any. Sometimes, that may be the best you can hope for.