40×40: Two Hands (1999)

Written and directed by Gregor Jordan.

“I’m being 100% fair dinkum with you!”

Why Did I Get This?

I remember watching this for the first time when I worked at a video shop (remember them?), in 2002/03, because I’d loved Heath Ledger in 10 Things I Hate About You (still do, don’t @ me), and was curious to see what else he had done. That is was a crime comedy appealed to me at that age, as did the fact it co-starred Bryan Brown, who I remembered fondly from his animatronic clown wrestling performance in F/X2: The Deadly Art Of Illusion, which I saw as a teenager.

Rose Byrne was an unknown to me then, but I remember how she lit up the scenes she shared with Ledger, and other than that, the only recollection I have of this is a weird prologue and epilogue featuring a reanimated corpse who we’re initially led to believe may or may not be Ledger’s character.

As for the disc, it’s completely bare bones and still in its cellophane – judging by the £1 sticker on it, looks like I bought it in the final days of the Woolworths empire, meaning this one’s been sitting on my To Watch Pile since around 2009!

The Late Review

As always, the Late Review will include details from throughout the film which could be considered spoilers. If you want to avoid them, scroll down to the next heading.

Two Hands is the story of Jimmy (Heath Ledger), a doorman at a Sydney strip club and occasional bare knuckle boxer who aspires to become part of the local mob run by Pando (Bryan Brown). When he’s given the opportunity to make a cash delivery, things quickly go awry, leaving Jimmy and his love interest Alex (Rose Byrne), in mortal danger.

Beginning this movie with Jimmy being led to his execution by Pando and his goons is a strong opening move, but as the gun fires and we’re assaulted by credits with a font so bad it makes it difficult to read the names of the cast and crew, we quickly realise that while the aspirations are high, we’re in low-budget Aussie territory.

Not that that’s a bad thing, of course. Check out the Late Review of Chopper for just how solid a cheap, grimy Australian crime flick can be. And while Eric Bana’s blistering performance was of a completely different style to Heath Ledger’s role as Jimmy, both men gave off a magnetism that’s impossible to deny.

As a side note, it’s also fun to hear Ledger using his native accent and, more amusingly, Aussie colloquialisms like “fair dinkum” which I honestly thought had been made up for stereotypical/racist impressions.

Anyway, back to the film.

After the credits, we see a cross-section of the Earth, before zooming in to find someone who looks a lot like a partially-decomposed Heath Ledger (The Man, later revealed to be Michael, Jimmy’s late brother – played by Steven Vidler), scraping his way up through the dirt. He pauses in his climb to offer a piece to camera about yin and yang, life and death, as the film cuts between the dead man and Jimmy winning a bareknuckle fight by knockout.

He ends his soliloquy by stating…

“Even the worst mongrel dog still deserves a second chance.”

… and we cut to Syndey’s red light district where Ledger and a casually-swearing friend are dressed like Mormons but working on the door of a strip club trying to entice punters inside. They talk about their dreams of getting in with Pando, the local gang leader, and as if on cue, up he rolls and calls Jimmy over to the car to invite him for a chat about a job the next day.

Not to return too frequently to Chopper, but there’s a quiet menace to Bryan Brown as Pando which is certainly reminiscent of Mark Brandon Read (or at least Eric Bana’s portrayal of him), not to mention the handlebar moustache. Jimmy arriving at Pando’s club to chat also feels a little like The Sopranos – much like Tony and his mobster buddies were shown playing cards in the back room of the Bada Bing, Pando and his lackey Ako are playing Scrabble.

Further humanisation of Pando comes from the snippets of his home life as a loving husband and father, which we see and hear throughout the film. He’s delighted to hear his son’s voice over the phone, and clearly enjoys doing origami with him in front of the TV later in the film (leading to my favourite ever pronunciation of the word ‘pterodactyl’ – coming from Pando, it rhymes with ‘crocodile’).

Anyway, Jimmy has to drive to Bondi Beach to drop $10,000 to one of Pando’s contacts, Sharon. In return, he gets $500 and the promise of further work for the mobster, but of course, nothing’s quite as simple as it should be.

I’ve always been fairly partial to that late-nineties/early-noughties trope of highlighting the ridiculous things that happen in everyday life (Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia being a case in point), and Two Hands makes use of this on a couple of occasions – one being more pleasant than the other, in my book.

Firstly, the coughing fit of Sharon prior to Jimmy’s arrival is very much played for laughs, as she hacks her lungs up while reaching for another cigarette. Eventually, she coughs so much she falls off her chair, then claws her way back into shot before collapsing to the floor again just as Jimmy starts banging on the door.

I don’t know if it was the actress’s own work, or overdubbed in post, but the coughing was genuinely sickening, but it’s technically her death that sets the plot in motion – since Jimmy can’t deliver the money and can’t return empty-handed, he goes for a swim on the beach, the cash gets nicked, and chaos ensues.

The cash is nicked by two street kids – Pete (Evan Sheaves), and Helen (Mariel McClorey) – who quickly go on a spending spree, buying sports clothes, trainers and sweets, and giving notes to their friends.

It’s interesting to see this side of Sydney – not far from the looming opera house, there are syringes in the gutter, strip clubs, hookers, street fights, murderers and thieves. It’s an underside of the city I hadn’t seen on screen before, and if I’m honest, it was weird seeing such grim goings-on taking place in bright, Australian sunshine.

Even more shocking are the sudden acts of violence which burst onto the screen seemingly from nowhere – like when Pete is suddenly hit by Acko’s car, in a Lewton Bus moment. It’s a shocking jump scare, and made worse by Helen’s distraught, mute reaction to it followed by Acko picking the lifeless boy up from in front of his car, throwing him to the side of the street and driving away. This act sets in motion events which wrap up the film and seal the fates of Acko, Pando and the rest of the gang as Helen takes violent revenge on them in the final scenes.

Another instance of PT Anderson-esque whimsy as mentioned earlier, sees henchman Ako realise the only bullets he has left are a few which have been through the washing machine. Figuring they’ll probably be fine, he loads his revolver, but when it comes time to shoot Jimmy in the head (close to where he killed Michael, Jimmy’s brother), the weapon explodes in his hand leading to a funny little conversation about the odds of that happening and the cleanliness (or otherwise), of his gun.

Ledger’s in amazing shape in this, moving like a dancer even when he’s just walking down the street. That famous story about the Bond producers watching Sean Connery walk and saying he moved like a panther? It’s that confidence, grace and non-verbal power that just radiates from certain performers, and Ledger is certainly radiant in this.

Speaking of radiant, Rose Byrne is great in this too. Her Alex is new in town, the sister of Jimmy’s friend who becomes instantly smitten with the cheeky young scamp – and let’s face it, who wouldn’t? I know she’s gone on to big things, but the potential is here from the get go – her look down the barrel of the camera and shedding of a tear as Jimmy takes a photo of her during an early meeting is real heart stopping stuff.

The chemistry between Byrne and Ledger is amazing – they’re both so young, beautiful and natural, they genuinely feel like a couple who have just been blown away by encountering each other, which makes their fear for each other feel real too, as Pando chases down Jimmy and warns Alex off him.

Back to the plot then, and as Jimmy frantically tries to work out how he can make $10,000 in less than a day, he visits his brother’s widow and urges her to let him get involved in a bank robbery she happens to be planning. She reluctantly agrees, and we’re introduced to some new villains – unlike Pando, they’re goofy and unthreatening, but like Pando, they’re humanised by being surrounded by kids due to childcare issues.

Honestly, the bank heist includes one of the most horrific accidental injuries outside of a Jackass stunt, as one of the robbers tries to leap over the counter with bags of cash, but slips and lands on his head, knocking himself out cold. I remember wincing the first time I saw it, and this time that was paired with a loud but inadvertent “OOOOFFFFF!” as the guy’s skull crunched to the floor.

Naturally, there’s a shootout outside the bank, followed by a car chase which includes a nice gag as Jimmy runs a radio station’s car off the road as it’s trying to give him $10,000 as part of a competition. Yes, it’s daft, but no dafter than other elements of the film, and considering Two Hands manages to cram a bank heist, a love story, a mob comedy with supernatural elements and a revenge thriller into its 90-odd minute run time, I think I’ll allow a little daftness.

Annoyingly, my disc broke with about six minutes of the movie to go, just after Jimmy returned the cash to Pando, but before Helen turns up and blows the gang away. I managed to find the ending online, but it wasn’t the one I remembered from 20 years ago – I definitely remembered the undead guy having a bit more to do before the credits rolled.

Turns out, the ending I saw back in the day was the extended ending (which is also available online, should you be interested). We get a bit more of Jimmy and Alex, as well as a bit more from Jimmy’s dead brother who thinks he might be able to escape Hell because he helped Jimmy… only to be pulled down back under the ground by ghoulish hands before the credits.

If I’m honest, his extra stuff didn’t add too much to the film. It’s good to round off his part, but the slight expansion of Byrne and Ledger’s reunion is nicer for me – much of that is down to the brilliant smile of relief from Alex when she discovers Jimmy is still alive.

It’s all wrapped up rather neatly then, and there’s definitely a follow-up to be written about what happens to Helen after she murders Pando and his gang and steals the money they’re sat around. As it is, it’s a decent enough showcase for two young stars which feels very much of its time but is perfectly enjoyable for it.

Verdict

Overall then, like a few of the 90-minute Late Reviews on this site, it’s a lot of film in a short runtime and not all of it works completely. But there’s enough charm on show and plenty of quirk on offer so that it never flags and always keeps you interested.

It’s one of those films that’s trying to be a lot of things at once – a romantic crime caper comedy with a quirky supernatural element – and which largely succeeds.

Much of this success is due to the sheer likability of the cast, with Ledger and Byrne particular standouts, but Bryan Brown’s mob boss close behind. Yes, he’s a psychopathic murderous shit, but he’s also a loving family man who pronounces ‘pterodactyl’ in a funny way.

There are images here which have stayed with me since first viewing and show no signs of going away now – the bank heist injury, Michael clawing his way through the earth, a drowning man being pulled to the bottom of the sea while chained to an engine block.

Gregor Jordan directed Ledger again on Ned Kelly in 2003, which I’ve never seen but would be curious to see. He also made Buffalo Soldiers with Joaquin Phoenix in 2001 which I have seen, but can’t remember a thing about. If nothing else, it appears there’s a diversity to his work which suggests he’s got ideas to spare, though it’s tempting to think he crowbarred a couple too many into his script when he was writing Two Hands.

If my disc worked properly, would I rush to watch it again? Maybe not. But if I stumbled across it on TV one night (hardly likely, I don’t think it’s ever been shown in the UK), I’d probably stick with it just to watch Byrne and Ledger’s charisma tearing up the screen.

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