Director: Jesse Haaja
Screenplay: Pekka Lehtosaari, Miika J. Norvanto, Timo Puustinen
Based on an idea by: Jesse Haaja
Starring: Kristofer Gummerus, Rami Rusinen, Renne Korppila, Matti Onnismaa, Johnny Vivash
Running Time: 101 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
The Finnish film industry isn’t particularly well travelled. Other than the festival and arthouse cinema friendly work of Aki Kaurismäki and the odd break-out cult movie like Iron Sky and Rare Exports, not much of the country’s cinematic output screens elsewhere. Rendel: Dark Vengeance (a.k.a. Rendel) seems to be aiming to buck this trend by presenting Finland’s first superhero movie. It seems an odd fit, with the generally reserved Finns not sharing much in common with the Americans who forged and worship the superhero genre, but director/creator Jesse Haaja puts a typically dark and gloomy Finnish spin on the idea. Being married to a Finn myself, I had to check the film out, so snapped up the chance to review Rendel’s forthcoming UK home entertainment release.
The film is set in a fictionalised version of the actual Finnish town of Mikkeli. Here lies the base of operations for a pharmaceutical company known as VALA, which has launched an untested vaccine known as Nh25 into the market. The controversial drug has its detractors, including some in-house whistle-blowers, but the shady Erola family which runs VALA, led by Pekka (Matti Onnismaa), do their best to silence them in brutal methods dealt out by Pekka’s son, Jarno, a.k.a. Rotikka (Rami Rusinen).
The Erolas seem to be cleaning house well, until Rendel (Kristofer Gummerus) arrives. A masked and seemingly unstoppable force, Rendel has his own personal reasons for taking down VALA. Rotikka is given the unenviable task of putting an end to the mysterious avenger so, seeing as his own team of goons aren’t up to the task, he hires in a group of tough mercenaries led by Radek (Johnny Vivash) to finish it.
I wanted to like Rendel more than I did, but it’s quite a flawed and ultimately very generic film, so did little to impress me. It’s your typical tale of a tragic hero taking revenge on an evil corporation headed by murderous gangsters. The film does give the ‘bad guys’ a bit more depth by exploring the father-son relationship between Pekka and Jarno, but in a way it does the film a disservice as it means less time is spent developing the central Rendel character (or Rämö as he’s known before he dons the mask) who isn’t all that interesting.
The film’s main flaw though, which goes some way to causing the weak characterisations, is its narrative structure and how it is executed. The story is told frequently through flashbacks as we jump between Rämö’s backstory and the present-day action of Rendel taking his revenge and Rotikka trying to stop him. The problem is, these flashbacks aren’t clearly signposted, so it took me a while to realise we weren’t watching one simple narrative timeline. I might have forgiven this if the jumbled up structure seemed justified, but the steadily unfolding flashbacks only culminated in showing the audience what was already blatantly obvious that had caused Rämö to become Rendel. I guess Haaja made the decision to mix up his story like this to make it seem more unique and interesting, but in reality the film would have worked better as a solid, if unoriginal action movie than the mess he ended up with.
It’s not all bad though. The film looks great, with its hyper-stylised neo-noir lighting. It shows its low budget occasionally, but on the whole looks great for a non-Hollywood attempt at a blockbuster. It also thankfully avoids too many special effects, which can be a sure-fire way to signal a non-studio title.
It’s also fairly action-packed too. It lacks the dazzling choreography of its Asian counterparts, but the fights are competently handled and nicely shot. They’re pretty brutal too, adding a darker edge to the film over the big budget ‘dark’ superhero movies we’re accustomed to.
I also appreciated the film’s use of black comedy. Finns tend to have a very dry and often dark sense of humour, and this is demonstrated frequently in the film. My wife and I laughed out loud a couple of times in fact. Most of the gags come from the villains, with some enjoyable contrasts between the evil and the mundane. A good example comes when we cut from Rotikka and his right-hand-man Lahtaaja (Renne Korppila) murdering someone in cold blood to eating some pizza that was left in the aftermath.
The performances are a bit of a mixed bag however. Some of the villains do a good job, with Rusinen providing an wonderfully short-tempered and sadistic chief antagonist. Korppila doesn’t say much, but is an intimidating presence. I also enjoyed Vivash, who plays Radek big, but enjoyably so. The rest of the mercenaries are less impressive, struggling to do much with their cheesy rent-a-bad-guy dialogue. Most importantly though, in terms of weak performances, is Gummerus as the lead. It doesn’t help that he spends a good two-thirds of the film in a mask and says very little, but he lacks the charisma to make a strong, memorable hero.
Overall then, it’s stylish and entertaining enough, with plenty of hard-hitting violence and effective comedy. However, at its heart it’s a generic, unexceptional action movie that offers little new and botches its storytelling when trying to be something it’s not.
Rendel: Dark Vengeance is out on 25th February on DVD and Digital in the UK, released by 4 Digital Media. I saw the DVD version and it looked pretty good for an SD presentation. There were a few jaggies when blown up on my projector, but colours were strong and the picture was fairly detailed. Unfortunately there are no special features included on the disc.