(Kieron Hawkes, UK, 2012): The hard-boiled egg of action movie motivators, it’s pretty hard to screw up a revenge story. If your villains are nasty enough and the crime they commit heinous enough, our primal desire to see them pay will practically make your movie for you. Entire genres, careers, production companies and national film industries have been built on this scantest of dramatic scenarios. Some revenge movies are therefore dubious for their simple-minded knuckleheadedness: these are the ones that plunge, wallow and splash in the primal muck. (Death Wish is king here.) And others take the high road. These are the ones that put their violence in quotation marks and try to sell us on the premise that they’re “about violence”.  (Taxi Driver rules here.) They’re the tricky ones. As sincerely motivated as they might be, they always run the risk of perpetrating the very pleasures they claim to condemn. They are like tricks who patronize hookers in name of saving them.

That’s a rather long way of saying Piggy‘s got a credibility problem. One of the uncounted dozens of British crime movies that have flourished so far in the 21st century — there are so many they practically comprise the entirety of Britain’s commercially viable independent industry — Piggy is a shallow movie with claims to depth. But it’s pretension isn’t of the disingenuous variety, or at least not sleazily so. It’s instead simply unconvincing in its nobler intentions, as wrong-headed and perhaps naive as the guy who thinks fighting fire with fire will actually put out the flames. Or maybe it’s just a little too liberal-mindedly guilty to take its pleasures straight up, which makes it guilty of a certain phoniness, a Sunday morning renunciation of Saturday night’s sins.

In effortlessly alienating London, Joe (Martin Compson) works as a courier for a company where his colleagues make sport of the young man’s chronic awkwardness in the basic interpersonal skills department. (He’s clearly got a social anxiety disorder.) He can’t get a date, lives alone eating takeout, watching telly and wondering why he just can’t fit in. He is also provides the movie with its running first-person voiceover, almost as common to this kind of self-conscious revenge movie as a gym bag full of tools. When his older brother and sole soul-mate John  (Kill List‘s Neil Maskell) gets fatally pulped by a group of lager louts, Joe’s co-dependent senses of guilt — he’d left the pub earlier in a baby sibling snit — isolation and detachment spike upward. Then a knock comes on his flat door and in walks Piggy (Paul Anderson), a man who claims to have been a close mate of John’s and offers Joe a crack at no-frills redemption. Donning a rubber pig mask, he shows Joe how to take his revenge one lout at a time, until the bodies pile up, the form and duration of the violence inflicted elaborates, and Joe begins to wonder what we most likely already wondered from the instant Piggy popped in out of nowhere sold Joe such a nakedly Mephistophelian bill of goods. Is this guy for real? Or is he Joe’s Id, adopting delusional spectral form so Joe can come to the ultimate reckoning that, gulp, maybe he’s the guy that’s gone over to the dark side…

First time director Kieron Hawkes can’t be faulted for being attracted to the nocturnal urban revenge scenario. As noted, it’s perhaps as irresistible and primal as pulp narratives get. But for all his clear skill in the basic image assembly department — the movie has a fairly sleek neo-noir shimmer to it, and London is (once again) utterly convincing as a menacing killing ground — Hawkes can’t elevate Piggy above the level of its own contrivances. Were Joe not quite so baldly susceptible to external suggestion — that voiceover tags him as a candidate for space travel almost instantly — or the various settings of the movie so conspicuously stripped of people, police or any indication of life outside the frame, the falling of Piggy’s shadow might not have seemed quite so creakingly symbolic, and the violence that ensues — stabbing, slicing, burning, pulping, etc. — not nearly so dangerously close to dull. While Anderson, who plays the alcoholic firecracker elder crime-family sibling in Peaky Blinders — can summon the menace in a heartbeat, he’s also just a tail and horns short of outright satanic, and the retributive rituals he perpetrates, customarily in over art-directed abandoned industrial warehouse spaces that exist only in movie-made London any more, and as obvious an imaginary mate as Harvey the six-foot barfly bunny. To sustain its ambivalent distance from the violence Joe inevitably succumbs to a recoils from, Piggy needed to confuse the boundaries separating its protagonist from his delusions, or at least provide convincing evidence for Joe’s even conditional acceptance of nocturnal stalk-and-torture excursions as the reasonable way to go. (Maybe Maskell, so unnervingly unstable in Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, should have stuck around for the Joe role.)

Piggy instead plays out as pure plastic-wrapped movie fantasy, and a reminder that even this most primal of action-movie motivators can fail to stir the most basic of instincts. All it takes is our suspicion that the movie isn’t as committed to getting dirty as we are. (Metronome)