Early in his career, Denzel Washington played characters that often found themselves embedded within an environment of significant political import. In 1986’s Power, his Arnold Billing stood in the way of an ambitious media consultant played by Richard Gere; in 1987’s Cry Freedom, he received an Oscar nomination for portraying political activist Steve Biko; and 1989’s The Mighty Quinn suggested a more multi-faceted Washington, an actor capable of the charisma, humor, energy, and virility he would come to be best known for in the films of Spike Lee and Tony Scott. Thus, it’s unsurprising given such precedence that For Queen and Country found Washington inhabiting a role that requires a quieter, less fiery energy, often in service of a narrative that has little clue as to how such dynamism could be utilized. It would be a year later, in Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, before Washington’s talents would be fully actualized.
Perhaps it’s fortunate for Washington’s career, then, that For Queen and Country was both a commercial and financial failure. Critics generally praised Washington while denigrating the film, which makes sense because director Martin Stellman, perhaps previously best known as a credited screenwriter for 1979’s Quadrophenia, addresses the racism inherent to Britain’s 1981 Nationality Law, which denied citizenship to those born in the West Indies, as fodder for the most banal sort of, what film scholar James Naremore calls, “male melodrama.”
Naremore develops the term in reference to film noir, but it works just as well for, say, Warner Bros.’s gangster films of the 1930s, after which For Queen and Country passingly models itself. The film’s first 10 minutes span nearly a decade of history, jumping chronologically across three time tables, eventually arriving in 1988 London, following Reuben James’s (Washington) tumultuous years as a paratrooper for the British army. The opening credits provide a flash of wit. As the title card “Denzel Washington in…” appears on screen, Reuben has been shot and is dragged bleeding across the street by Fish (Dorian Healy), and since there’s little suggestion that Reuben will survive the scene, much less the entire film, Stellman plays with the genre leniencies at his disposal, suggesting his film will immerse itself within these pleasures as a means to address larger, socio-historical points.
However, what follows is simply stiff-upper-lip bathos, without the slightest wink, smirk, or even modest inclination that the overwrought, melodramatic tone struck by Stellman’s convoluted narrative, and a particularly hammy score by Michael Kamen, are intended as such. After the prologue, Reuben returns from war to find his old neighborhood overrun by corrupt cops, drug dealers, and poverty. However, Rossellini this ain’t; think more early-’90s Mark Lester. When Reuben is told by a racist cop that “that was an English war, not a jungle war,” prompting a face-to-face stare down, Stellman queues the minimal, industrial clanks, straight out of 1988’s Bloodsport; you might think Frank Dux and Chong Li were around to rumble if it weren’t for Washington’s solemnity. Likewise, a later, brief fight scene inside a night club unfolds without neorealist or genre-based conviction, having Reuben and Fish throw a few punches at nameless baddies, before they hobble out the door, fleeing more heavies. Nearly every scene of intended tension or excitement unfolds in a similarly clumsy manner, but without even the goofy buddy frills afforded something as bottom of the barrel and shamelessly derivative as 1991’s Showdown in Little Tokyo.
Moreover, Reuben’s relationship with Stacey (Amanda Redman) proceeds with little meaning beyond a rather bizarrely placed “return of the repressed” moment, as Reuben inexplicably reminds her of a former life—an epiphany that “triggers” because of his sharp-shooting skills with a toy gun at a local fairgrounds. Stellman seems to want to shift between serious historical drama, campy actioner, and forlorn melodrama, without any clear sense of how to do so. Therefore, once Reuben’s friends have been killed and he’s left to commit a single act of vengeful violence, For Queen and Country has gone so far astray from any discernible purpose of tone or conviction, that the concluding gunshot, which queues a cut to black, cannot be seen as anything other than a merciful end to one of the most bizarrely tasteless and lifeless films I can think of. Unlike Washington, whose acting career was soon to prosper, Stellman hasn’t directed another film since.
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