(From Digital Bits| July 2004)
Back in the mid 1980's, Alex Cox seemed like the last person who'd show up in a column like this. Every single person I knew had seen and loved his 1984 debut Repo Man. He cemented his indie cred with his follow-up, the punk biopic Sid & Nancy. And then, slowly but surely, his audience started to abandon him. First came the punk spaghetti western comedy Straight to Hell, a movie I've tried time and time again to embrace and just can't no matter how hard I try. And after the jumbled, anachronistic Walker, many of the people who had adored Alex Cox's first two films dismissed him as a self-indulgent two-trick pony.
So what happened to Alex Cox? Personally, I think he had two separate but interrelated problems. First, he stayed completely true to his own iconoclastic voice, regardless of what critics or audiences thought. This is actually admirable and is certainly preferable to a filmmaker who sells out completely and loses track of what made their movies special to begin with. Second, he had the misfortune to spend years working on projects that never got made, at least not with him. Over the years, Cox was attached to everything from Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas to an adaptation of Marvel's Sorcerer Supreme, Dr. Strange (which I still think would be one of the most mindbendingly bizarre superhero movies ever). Perhaps if Cox had been willing to bend a little bit on his personal vision, some of these movies would have been made. But would they still have been Alex Cox movies once they were finished?
Love him or hate him (and I've done both), Alex Cox has earned my respect by being one of the few filmmakers who refuses to compromise. When you sit down to watch one of his movies, you know you're not watching some movie-by-committee. Good or bad, the praise or blame belongs solely to Alex Cox. His most recent project, Revengers Tragedy, makes its US debut on DVD courtesy of Fantoma. Unlike the two movies above, Revengers Tragedy did not get a theatrical run because it never got a theatrical distributor. Cox is too weird, too personal for a run in American cinemas in the 21st century. It's unfortunate because Revengers Tragedy, despite being based on a 17th century play by Thomas Middleton and set in a post-apocalyptic Liverpool, is Cox's most accessible and successful film in years.
The story follows Vindici (Christopher Eccleston) as he returns home a decade after the powerful Duke (Derek Jacobi) murdered his wife. Vindici is sworn to take his revenge on the Duke and insinuates himself with the Duke's power-hungry son Lussurioso (Eddie Izzard). Vindici takes his bloody revenge but the movie's called Revengers Tragedy, so you know he's not going to be riding off into the sunset when it's all over.
Revengers Tragedy is part of a tradition I call visual updating. That is, the text of Middleton's Jacobean play is left virtually intact but the costumes, sets, and music are rocketed centuries forward. When this is done well, you can get a movie like Richard Loncraine's Richard III with Ian McKellan. When it's done poorly, you get Baz Luhrmann. With Revengers Tragedy, Alex Cox does it very well indeed. It works in his favor that Middleton's play is much less well-known than anything by Shakespeare, so the updated costumes and techno score by erstwhile tubthumpers Chumbawamba are not as jarring as they might have been. But also, Cox remains consistent to his own vision, creating a believably bizarre Liverpool dominated by jumbo video screens and populated by knife-throwers, Beefeaters, and royal grudge matches decided with a game of foosball.
When you first hear that Alex Cox is directing a Jacobean tragedy, you might expect the casting to be as bizarre and outlandish as the visual palette. But wisely, Cox plays it straight with a roster of accomplished actors led by Christopher Eccleston. Eccleston is a perfect choice as Vindici, filling the character with a seething hatred that inevitably explodes in mad revenge. Derek Jacobi is no stranger to classic theatre, having participated in several of Kenneth Branagh's Shakespeare films, and his ease with the language raises the bar for everyone else. To his credit, he doesn't shy away from Cox's vision, playing the lecher to the hilt. Comedian Eddie Izzard might seem to be the ringer in the bunch but he's surprisingly good here, more than holding his own against Eccleston and Jacobi.
Once again, Fantoma gives the major studios a lesson in how to give an obscure, essentially direct-to-video title a proper DVD release. Picture and 5.1 sound are very good here, on par if not better than the work done by New Line. Cox and Izzard contribute a lively audio commentary that succeeds at being both amusing and informative. A 30-minute documentary provides background into the text as well as Cox's history with it and his working methods. Also included are four featurettes of variable quality, the 2001 Cannes Promo that Cox produced to help get funding for the project, a deleted scene, and a gallery of production art and storyboards. Finally, the insert provides a few interesting excerpts from Cox's online journal.
Revengers Tragedy proves that you don't need theatrical distribution to produce a high-quality feature film. And in this case, it may have even helped that the movie wasn't released theatrically. A major studio wouldn't have lavished half the care on the DVD that Fantoma has. Revengers Tragedy also proves that taking a chance on a completely unknown quantity can sometimes yield great things. If you're like me, you probably had no idea that Alex Cox was still active in filmmaking. It's good to see that he's not only still out there, he's still answering to no one but himself.