Sunday, April 27, 2008

Review – Regeneration

April 27, 2008

Regeneration – U.S., 1915

By now, the basic plot of R.A Walsh’s Regeneration will surprise no one, as the gangster film has been a well-established genre for some time now. A film in this genre usually goes something like this: A boy has a rough childhood, grows up to be a criminal, and in the end has a shot at redemption. Regeneration does not deviate from this outline. However, it may also be said that Regeneration created what we now know as the standard gangster film.

Regeneration, the first full-length gangster film in the U.S., begins after tragedy has struck a young ten-year old boy named Owen. His mother has died, leaving him lost, morose, and alone. As other children play ball in the streets and laugh joyfully, he watches as his mother’s body is carried away. Tears roll down his cheeks, as he settles in for what is sure to be an uncertain future. Across the hall, his neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Conway, an emotionally unstable couple prone to aggression and violence, decide to bring Owen to live with them. They immediately put the boy to work doing chores, and when he performs his responsibilities too slowly, Mrs. Conway strikes him. In a matter of seconds, Owen’s life has gone from one of sorrow to one of abuse. Years later, Owen has had enough and runs away.

It is sometimes said that abused children grow up to be either passive or determined not to stand by and watch injustices occur. Owen is an example of the latter. At 17, while he is at work, he sees a physically challenged young man picked on by a local bully. Owen doesn’t hesitate to run over and pick a fight with the bully. It's a sign of the times that the bully’s two friends do not intervene, allowing the fight to remain a one-on-one contest, one in which Owen is victorious. This catches the attention of an older man who has some words with Owen, possibly about a job. Eight years later, Owen is the leader of his own gang.

These events transpire rapidly, as the majority of the film is about Owen’s adult life. Whiling his time away playing cards and taking part in petty crimes, Owen, played by Rockliffe Fellowes, who bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Marlon Brando, is heading in no particular direction. This changes when the local D.A. decides to make it his mission to rid the city of its gangster population. In one of the more implausible moments of the film, the D.A. agrees to take a young woman named Marie Deering (well played by Anna Q. Nilsson) into a club frequented by the very type of person he has pledged to clamp down on. This occurs because Marie professes her irrational desire to see gangsters up close. Things do not go well at the club, as one by one the gangsters recognize the D.A. and set upon him. At first, Owen is encouraging of the assault on the D.A., but when she sees the fear on Marie’s face, he decides to intervene on the D.A.’s behalf, an action that more importantly introduces him to Marie.

Regeneration tackles some heavy issues for its time. It asks whether redemption is possible for criminals and whether loyalty is more important than justice. It questions whether heroism and villainy can exist simultaneously and ponders just what makes someone brave and willing to risk their lives for others. The movie seems to imply that one can be a gangster and be gallant at the same time, but that eventually one must choose one side over the other. Marie brings out the best in Owen and sees in him something very unique, something worth falling in love with. Will that be enough to subdue Owen’s gangster side? Only time will tell.

Regeneration’s finale is quick and violent, as sides form in what will prove to be a battle for Owen’s very conscience. Avid viewers of later gangster films may think they know what Owen’s choice will be. However, the ending will surprise many, both for its violent and racy elements and for its emotional power. Regeneration is an important film historically, but perhaps more important, it is a good film, one that deserves to be seen by a wider audience. (on DVD from Image-Entertainment)

3 stars

*Regeneration contains a few moments during which the source material has obviously been damaged beyond repair. These moments are brief though and won’t hinder the audience’s appreciation of the film.

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