Cast against type in Son Of A Gun as a badass, widely feared convict—someone who intimidates even the prison’s biggest, scariest dudes—Ewan McGregor does his best to turn off the charm and project the quiet intensity that would justify his character’s reputation. He does a reasonably decent job, especially in the film’s early scenes, in which he sports a bushy, not very Obi-Wan beard. Had the entire movie been set in prison, and continued in the same gritty vein that first-time writer-director Julius Avery initially establishes, it might have been an effective little nail-biter, along the lines of last year’s Starred Up. Unfortunately, this promising material turns out to be merely the setup for a thoroughly generic action flick in which a gang of thieves without much honor attempt to pull off one last big heist. In the long, dispiriting slide to mediocrity thereafter, McGregor largely relapses into cute-rascal mode.
He also sounds a bit odd throughout, as Son Of A Gun is an Australian film and his Scottish burr constantly bleeds through his game effort at an Aussie accent. Actual Australian Brenton Thwaites (Oculus, The Giver, Maleficent) plays the protagonist, JR, who begins the movie serving a six-month stretch in maximum security for a crime never even vaguely alluded to, much less specified. JR’s cellmate is a constant target for the block’s rapist thugs, and after he commits suicide in despair, they start preying on JR himself. Notorious armed robber Brendan Lynch (McGregor) offers JR his protection, provided that JR will help to spring Lynch (who’s doing 20 years) after his release. Jail break accomplished, Lynch includes JR in a crew that’s planning to steal newly smelted gold bars directly from a gold mine—a heist that, predictably, doesn’t go entirely according to plan. Worse, JR has gotten romantically involved with Tasha (Alicia Vikander), the moll of the crime boss (Jacek Koman) who commissioned the operation.
It would take some real creativity to inject original ideas into this compendium of clichés, and Avery expends all of his during the early prison scenes. JR gets Lynch’s attention, for example, by looking at a chess game Lynch is playing (via correspondence, with someone on the outside) and immediately noting that his last move will get him mated in four moves. Impressive! Yet Lynch subsequently hands JR tasks that require muscle and nerve, not strategic cunning, including the hijacking of a helicopter and breaking into the mine’s smelting room via the good ol’ ventilation ducts. (At this point in cinema history, if your hero’s plan involves crawling through ventilation ducts, it’s time for draft two.) There’s an eventual twist of sorts, but it’s as underwhelming as JR and Tasha’s forbidden romance, which is almost 100 percent chemistry-free. And while the movie’s title suggests a paternal relationship between the middle-aged Lynch and his fresh-faced protégé, this never amounts to much more than Lynch warning JR to stay away from women, ’cause they’re nothing but trouble. Not so much a scary badass as just a sexist jerk.