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Postmortem (1998)
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by Jack Sommersby

"An Underrated, Terrific Little Thriller"
4 stars

Unfairly relegated to a direct-to-video release here in the States, it's well worth a rental for those tired of disappointingly impersonal big-budget pictures.

Aside from a typically-mediocre Charlie Sheen miscast in the lead role, the serial-killer thriller Postmortem is consistently entertaining and suspenseful, along with being another feather in the cap for director Albert Pyun, whose previous outing was the dandy post-apocalyptic horror tale Adrenalin: Fear the Rush that's rightfully regarded by some of us as a bona fide mini-classic. The setting here is Glasgow, Scotland, where a clever fiend is targeting attractive young women and leaving their blood-drained corpses behind with no signs of either trauma or sexual assault; understandably, the police are baffled and frustrated in light of there being very little in the way of forensic evidence to follow up on. Suffice to say, the killer is of the methodical, disciplined variety who leaves little to chance in his quest for satisfying, metaphysical transcendence. Enter Sheen's James McGregor, a burnt-out ex-San Francisco cop and "international legend" for his uncanny ability at understanding the twisted internal logic of the murderers he's tracking down; living off the proceeds of his best-selling true-crime book, he's isolated himself in his seaside Glasgow home and taken to many bouts of heavy drinking to try to forget all the sicko mind-sets he's previously plugged into through uncanny empathy and projection. But his invaluable help is badly needed by the cops, and after initially rejecting their request he relents and soon finds himself knee-deep in the psychological realm of quite the resourceful adversary who's been managing to stay a step or two ahead of his pursuers. Until now, that is.

While the story is undeniably derivative (most obviously from author Thomas Harris's Red Dragon) and doesn't exactly strike oodles of new notes (unlike the adaptation of Red Dragon, Michael Mann's Manhunter), the fine screenplay largely stresses coherence over sensationalism, going for a consistently-affecting overall whole rather than a cooties-plagued collage of uncouthly-engineered, cranked-up "moments" to appease thirty-second attention spans. The police-procedural details are fascinating, laid out for us in mature, measured fashion so we don't feel talked down to; and we're allowed to admire the antagonist's ingenuity and get a handle on his titanically-troubled psyche so he comes across three-dimensionally and not as a strictly-standard plot device. (It also helps that he subtly emanates malice instead of italicizing it.) Then there's the hero, who initially comes off as mentally-troubled as his quarry, and this feels about right. McGregor is good at his job but too good at it as well -- it's his lucid linkage with the killer that's both an asset and a liability in that his conscience can't help but remind that somewhere deep inside he can identify with the repulsive pleasure that murder can bring. It's completely plausible that he needs a bit of luring to become active in the investigation; ditto that he also needs to succeed not only to get this human monster off the streets but to reaffirm his moral superiority over him so he can jettison a lot of mental baggage and start to comfortably live with himself.

Unfortunately, while he makes the effort to fully inhabit the character, Sheen is less than captivating. There's always been an innate dullness in him that he just hasn't been able to shake; he can't really fill in a character and deepen it -- merely representing it is about the best he can do. Normally such a deficiency would be a deal breaker in a film reliant on a hero grappling with ultra-dramatic complexities, but, luckily, the role's been written well enough that Sheen is able to skim by passably enough without torpedoing the proceedings. Helping out immensely is the talented Michael Halsey as a veteran inspector who knows what buttons to push in McGregor; relaxed yet commanding, Halsey gives Sheen someone aptly to play off of, and their rapport develops appealingly. But the driving force at work here is director Pyun, who installs pace and tension and narrative drive along with paying attention to something all too few directors bother with: shaping individual sequences to where they're fully felt and realized -- he doesn't give tender loving care only to the "big moments" but every cog in the cinematic wheel. And as everyone familiar with Adrenalin and Pyun's directorial debut The Sword and the Sorcerer knows, he possesses a virile visual imagination, resulting in deliciously supple widescreen compositions that entice and convey expressive mood that renders the unpleasant story appropriately grim but never joylessly glum. Of particular note is a fantastically-staged chase scene climaxing with a deadly potassium-filled syringe that's simply stupendous. Like the rest of the film, it's disquieting yet euphoric in a strangely cathartic sort of way.

The film was shot in widescreen, but the DVD is full-frame. Someone please do something about this.

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originally posted: 07/20/10 06:29:08
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  30-Jun-1998 (R)
  DVD: 06-Oct-1998

  30-Aug-1998 (18)

  30-Aug-1998 (MA)

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