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Shock To The System
cast: Chad Allen, Sebastian Spence, Michael Woods, and Morgan Fairchild

director: Ron Oliver

95 minutes (15) 2006
widescreen ratio 16:9
TLA DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Michael Bunning
The sequel to Third Man Out, and the second of Richard Stevenson's Donald Strachey mysteries to be filmed, Shock To The System is an enjoyable detective story, though not without its flaws.

Donald Strachey (Chad Allen) is a private investigator, struggling to make ends meet (in the grand traditions of all the best private investigators). He's got a small, messy office, a small, messy Toyota, a not-so-small martini habit and a definitely-not-small house in the suburbs with his 'husband', senator's aide Timmy Callahan (Sebastian Spence).

Strachey, struggling against (but also living off) his reputation as 'the gay detective', receives a mysterious call, setting up a meeting with Paul Hale - poster boy for a clinic claiming to 'cure' gay people - who asks him to find someone, shoves a cheque into his hand, then runs away without saying any more. When Hale turns up dead the next day, Strachey decides to take the case and dives headlong into a typically convoluted mystery.

It's a well-acted and directed piece, which enjoys tipping a cheeky wink to detective fiction fans, using camera tricks familiar to anyone who's seen The Big Sleep and its ilk, and even including a replica of the statue of the Maltese Falcon. There are plenty of plot twists and the whole thing moves along briskly. There's not as much wise-crackery as expected (compared to the acid script from Third Man Out): about the pithiest line Strachey manages is "I only beat up people who deserve it," but the dialogue isn't noticeably bad.

But then there are the flaws, and while they're not bad enough to spoil the film, they do niggle. First is Strachey's character: he's an ex-military, tough-as-nails, poor, slovenly, acerbic smart-ass. When he's at work. At home, he's completely different: sensitive, tidy, loving all-round-nice-guy wearing designer clothes and sipping martinis. At work he uses a car on its last legs and his office is above a pawnbrokers. Then he goes home to a large, well-appointed house with a manicured garden in the suburbs. There's no reason this dichotomy shouldn't happen (many people's work and home lives are completely different), but it just doesn't feel right: the difference is just too jarring and there's no attempt to reconcile it.

And then there are the martinis that Strachey guzzles: again, no reason he shouldn't enjoy a dry-as-dust gin martini (in fact, he should: they're delicious!), but it's the only thing he drinks and it just doesn't quite fit the character. Throw in a beer or a shot of whiskey and it'd be okay, but the diet of pure martini seems a little off. The other main flaw is that practically everyone in the film is gay. Not a problem in itself, except that it's not just the main cast - it's all the waiters, shop assistants, even all the students at a local university. And the straight characters are all caricatured bigots: they're either bitter homophobes or view gayness as a disease. This is a shame, because it (as with the difference between Strachey's work personality and his home personality) feels unrealistic. As previously mentioned, these flaws don't hurt the film much - it's still an entertaining detective story, with decent acting and direction - it's just that they detract a little from the immersion you might feel.

On the other hand, of course, this film isn't trying to draw in a mainstream audience - it's gay cinema. It isn't trying to appeal to everyone; it's trying to appeal to gay people. I think that's a shame, because in my experience, movies that aim themselves squarely at a niche audience usually do so because they're not good enough to draw in viewers who won't forgive the film's faults, and that's not really the case with Shock To The System. The acting, writing and directing are good enough that they deserve to reach a wider audience. The film certainly deserves your attention, and the third Strachey book to be filmed (Ice Blues, currently in production) ought to be high on your must-watch list when it comes out.

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