From a career-building and star-grooming point of view, writer and director Gregor Jordan’s offbeat crime caper Two Hands (1999) is significant for a few reasons.
It starred a little-known Heath Ledger as a simple-minded wannabe criminal, heralded the breakthrough performance for Rose Byrne as his sweet, country girl love interest and provided the stepping stone for Jordan's career in Hollywood. His next film was 2001's Buffalo Soldiers, an irreverent Cold War-set comedy starring Joaquin Phoenix as a drug-peddling US soldier.
History may remember Two Hands for the talent attached to it, but it was a smash hit at the Australian box office (generating about $5.5m) for other reasons. Although this quirky crime-doesn’t-pay morality fable is full of well-worn genre tropes, Jordan avoids delivering the same-old same-old by innovating around the edges.
His writing weaves in elements familiar to two influential films popular shortly before its release. The neatly bundled crossing-paths plot lines are reminiscent of the similarly themed Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and a whiff of alternate universes and narratives coincidences, albeit of a more hard yakka variety, a la Sliding Doors (1998).
Jimmy (Ledger) is a naive 19-year-old who wants to make it in Kings Cross. He accepts a job from underworld head honcho Pando (Bryan Brown) of the most simplistic kind: drop off a bundle of money and get a cut in return. In a plot point that highlights the intellectual gulf between a screenwriter and their creations (a dumb decision for a character is often a smart one for the progression of a story), Jimmy goes for a dip in the ocean and buries $10,000 of hot cash in the sand.
The stash is swiped by a couple of street kids and our none-too-bright protagonist is suddenly in debt to the most dangerous hood in town. Jimmy spends the remainder of the film on the run, dabbling in a life of crime in the hope of spinning a quick supply of cash.
When Jimmy partners up with a bank-robbing shotgun enthusiast, Two Hands hits its tragi-comic stride. We laugh at the ocker mannerisms and dumb antics of goofy goons one moment – "yeah, shotties are good," says one shotgun enthusiast, and it's all in the delivery – but observe an innocent victim killed the next.
The plot pivots on the stupid behaviour of its central character, including Jimmy's unfortunate incident at the beach, the date he goes on in a public spot when every crook in town is looking for him and a funny pre-credits sequence in which he pleads for his life at gunpoint but forgets the contact details of anybody who can corroborate his story.
Ledger completely sells the decent, unsophisticated bloke who is in way over his head. And while it's not a great performance –remember, these were his early days and the late actor evolved his skill and presence over time, peaking with a magnificently creepy incarnation of the Joker in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight (2008) – his boyish mannerisms make a good fit for the material.
Byrne is also in her element as a "small-town girl in a lonely world" type. Her and Ledger's naturalistic performances form a light but memorable chemistry.
The film’s weirdest invention is a poetry-reciting Fright Night-style narrator, Jimmy’s dead brother (Steven Vidler), who periodically appears ensconced in dirt and sand to wax philosophical.
"Something that is good can still have a little bit of bad in it, and something that's bad still has a little bit of good," the pallid-faced ghoul pontificates, bullet hole lodged in his right cheek, in one of several scenes that could easily have felt dopey and distracting. Instead, Jordan's quirky inventions form a strangely cohesive whole.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010