There are many striking images in Garry Walsh’s crime caper Bad Things in the Middle of Nowhere, and none more so than two fleeing bank robbers dressed in giant frog costumes.
They were supposed to be the Ninja Turtles. But even with the hastily painted bandanas over the rubber masks’ bulging eyeballs, the crooks look more like one of the many second-rate imitators that filled TV screens, comic book pages and toyshop shelves in the ’90s. Think Street Sharks or Biker Mice from Mars, or as it might appear in this film’s own parlance, Rapid Reptiles.
A plan coming together makes for great cinema. Well-oiled heists have delighted and excited audiences since before the Sound Era. They work so well on film because they’re close to the filmmaking process itself.
A caper where each participant knows their role and executes a flawless snatch, grab and getaway runs side by side with the filming of that kind of action. Just as the jewel thief dangles over trip wires and laser beams so too do the camera operator, director, grip and sound recordist. Their getaway is a satisfied shout of “Cut!”
To my mind, an even greater pleasure is in seeing a plan go off the rails. This happens almost immediately in Bad Things in the Middle of Nowhere when the frog-suited thieves alert the Gardaí and a rival gang to the theft. Shots are fired and one of the frogs takes a licking.
Walsh’s visuals touch on a wide range of Robbery Gone Wrong movies. The opening credits rolling over high-speed footage of country roads recalls Amores Perros, which in turn was tipping its hat to Reservoir Dogs. Bad Things has a fair amount of that DNA too: the safe-house setting where most of the film’s remaining action takes place plays a lot like Dogs’ warehouse, or Ringo Lam’s City on Fire, if the homage goes deeper still.
Frankie (Joseph McGucken) arrives at the gang’s safe house, a friend of a friend’s holiday home, unaware of what’s coming his way. Things aren’t so smooth for Frankie either. He can’t find the key to the house and has to rely on the kindness of his immediate neighbour, Sadie (Cat L. Walsh), a friendly nurse on-hand with advice, leftover lasagna and later, warnings over a recently disappeared couple in the area.
Frankie puts the feeling that something’s not quite right about Sadie down to country generosity. Things are different away from the capital.
The gang’s safe house feels anything but. Walsh and cinematographer Matthias Grunsky make this small country cottage look like a maze of corridors and dark corners. Even with the lights on, the rooms appear dark and cramped – especially once Frankie’s frog-suited accomplices Dancer (James Farrelly) and Gaz (Darryl Carter) arrive with an unexpected guest.
Gaz’s gunshot wound needs attention, which gives Dancer and Frankie a chance to do what they do best – argue with each other. The verbal sparring between the two lifelong friends is well-paced. Frankie is the voice of reason to Dancer’s more extreme personality.
The men wait for news from the other members of the gang. Momo (Liam Cooney) was supposed to be there already but he’s nowhere to be found. Their boss, The Chief (Owen Roe), is in frequent contact, concerned more for the cocaine and cash than the safety of his men. Paranoia builds and tensions flare as setback after setback befalls the group.
Frankie and Dancer have very loose characterisations. Broadly speaking, Dancer is brash and impulsive whereas Frankie is nervy and cautious.
Garry Walsh and co-writer Bryan Walsh put more emphasis on good jokes than precise detail in how they write Dancer and Frankie. For example, at various points in the film one of them will reveal arcane knowledge on some obscure topic. When Frankie calls the safe house a “kip”, Dancer is quick to correct him, stating that the stonework around the fireplace is not something you find in any old place.
There’s a rhythm of twists and turns, and despite the looseness of the dialogue the narrative remains engaging – to a point. There is a later twist that could have been better signposted.
As it stands, Bad Things in the Middle of Nowhere goes places you wouldn’t expect – some good and some confounding. The film’s best moments are in the battles of wit between these hapless gangsters, exchanges about whether the stolen cocaine is from the deepest depths of the Colombian jungle, or if the term is “Stockade” or “Stockholm” syndrome. In these scenes the would-be hardened professionals look like amateurs struggling to make sense of the chaos around them.
And then there’s that opening sequence, with the frog suits, a standout image that we get further away from as the film progresses – not in a temporal sense, but darker, weirder images are thrown at us later on.
Bad Things appeals to that greater pleasure of seeing something come undone, but with that same precision as when it all goes right. The presentation is strong, and so is the writing but there’s a couple of twists too many in a film that starts off as clever pastiche and ends up somewhere else entirely.
Bad Things in the Middle of Nowhere plays as part of the Dublin International Comedy Film Festival on 3 December. It is scheduled for a wide release in 2023