by Richard Hart
Netflix struck gold with it’s original series so far. House of Cards has been a smash hit with audiences and critics, courting controversy with its cynicism and it’s binge watching with the whole season uploaded at once. Orange is the New Black has also garnered good reviews.
So how fares the latest Netflix original series; Dusk Till Dawn? First things first, it’s a spinoff / reboot of the cult 1996 horror / action movie helmed by the maverick director Robert Rodriguez. The original, if you’ve not seen it, is a wild cut and shut movie that is quite literally one half road movie and one half vampire movie. There’s no warning about the vampire half of the movie, they just show up out of nowhere and start eating people at about the half way mark of the movie.
The movie itself is a lot of fun, violent, stupid, crass, over the top, raunchy in places and featuring George Clooney’s first big acting role. The acting is a mixed bag. Clooney was still finding his feet and this was during his “wobbly head” acting phase. Quentin Tarantino, who wrote the screenplay, shows up to play George Clooney’s brother and he’s pretty bad, as usual. Harvey Keitel is solid as the fallen preacher Jacob Fuller and a host of others round out the cast, make-up star Tom Savini and Mexican goddess Salma Hayek being the stand outs.
It goes without saying that the following review does contain a few spoilers but mostly things that are spoiled by having seen the original movie.
The shows pilot essentially reconstructs the opening liquor store shoot out of the original movie which lasts about six minutes into an entire forty four minute episode. Some elements are really well done; the relationship between Richie and Seth is nicely played and Zane Holtz has to get across the violent, unpredictable nature of Richie. The episode’s stand outs are Jessie Garcia and Don Johnsen, playing Texas Rangers Earl McGraw and Freddy Gonzalez. The repartee and relationship between them feels genuine and Don Johnsen is at his craggy best, delivering some strong maths related dialogue in this episode.
However the episode feels overly long and drags a bit. Several decisions are made that don’t make a whole lot of sense and it feels like the whole episode is stalling for time, padding out the scene so it can take place across the entire pilot episode. It’s hard to understand why the Gecko brothers spend so long inside the liquor store, or why no more cops arrive to back up Gonzalez during the stand off. Most difficult to buy into is that Don Johnsen’s Earl McGraw survives so long having been shot at point blank range. That whole element of the story feels very weak and hard to buy into.
The series takes a drastic departure in another way from the series, however, by introducing the idea of the vampires much sooner. The prologue scene sets up the vampire cult which is expanded on in later episodes. Meanwhile Richie has visions of the vampires including little images of Santanica Pandemonium. This is a nice idea, setting up that there may be more at stake than a mere crossroads of fortune.
At the end of the first episode, it’s essentially just like watching a slower, less violent version of the movies opening scene. You either buy into this approach or it puts you off. Oddly, people who haven’t seen the movie may enjoy the pilot episode a bit more as it wont come across as a low budget retread of something they already saw once before.
It’s worth pointing out here that Netflix original series are far from cheap. They have lush production values, not quite on HBO standards but certainly up to the par we’ve all come to expect from television these days. The show is also quite violent for a mainstream TV show but does feature a lot less bad language than the original Tarantino script did.
The second episode fleshes out the relationship between the two brothers, their shared back story and is largely concerned with telling the story of their bloody bank hold up from which the brothers are fleeing. It also gets across for the first time that Richie has his uses beyond shooting people in an indiscriminate manner. Richie is an ace safe cracker and broke Seth out of prison. Richie’s reputation has sunk in his brother’s absence however, setting up a tension between the two which is only exacerbated by Richie’s hair trigger finger.
This episode also introduces the Fuller family. Robert Patrick plays troubled preacher Jacob Fuller who has taken his family on a road trip, whether they like it or not. The family are likeable, in a bland way and come across quite dull compared to the aggressive and violent Gecko brothers. Daughter Kate’s text conversations with her bible quoting boyfriend are a bit forced and you never quite buy into that story before a strange moment of deus ex machina removes that from the story.
Wilmer Valderamma plays the boss of the Gecko brothers; the enigmatic Don Carlos who is a cool, violent and mysterious presence in the story, largely operating in the background. Very quickly the episode establishes that he’s no mere gang boss.
Also introduced in this episode is the bank teller who is now their hostage. Far more attractive than the middle aged woman from the original movie, she’s a hard character to buy into and there are some contrived moments that set things up as plot devices (a mobile phone that the brothers somehow miss is a glaring one).
The episode features two major clichés: the cop who goes off the reservation to chase the guys that killed his partner and the two brothers have a fist fight in the sand. Neither is staged especially well but Garcia makes his vengeful Texas Ranger a watchable and believable character.
The third episode features Seth meeting up with his ex wife, played in cameo by the bland Adrien Paliecki. Paliecki’s character is a shrill, underwritten character who veers from one emotional climax to another and she’s a real damp squib in what is otherwise a decent episode of television.
The other major cameo is Jake Busey who shows up looking like a young Robert Redford, playing a professor who is there to give Gonzalez advice about Mesoamerican cults. Busey delivers his exposition heavy scene with a bit of a hammy twitch but is clearly enjoying himself, buying into his motorbike riding professor who is an intriguing character.
The episode feels a bit soap opera-ish, especially in the elements involving the Fuller family as they gradually uncover the depth of Jacob Fuller’s recent crisis. Patrick does his best with these scenes but they never quite ring true.
Zane Holtz is the stand out for the episode, his one on one episode plays out his back story and his character in depth, as well as getting across the growing insanity inside him which may or may not have a supernatural root to it.
The first three episodes are watchable without being unmissable. The show is reverent and respectful to the original movie whilst trying to set up its own mythos of ancient vampire cults and mesoamerican gods. At the moment it all feels a bit small scale and hard to buy into but there’s enough going on to keep one eye on the screen and it’s an easy enough watch.
The TV show is based on the movie and recasts George Clooney’s Seth Gecko to relative newcomer DJ Cortona. Cortona has the look but not the charisma of Clooney and doesn’t get across the easy likeable nature that Clooney imbues in the movie. Zane Holtz replaces Quentin Tarantino as Richie Gecko and whilst he’s got less to improve on, Tarantino is not a fine actor, Holtz is very good and so far is the series stand out. His edgy, disturbed and occasionally ice-cold Richie is a more rounded character and comes across as someone that you would want around, despite his massive character faults.
Robert Patrick is Jacob Fuller, the preacher struggling with a crisis of faith. Patrick is always watchable and gets across the idea of a man in crisis really well. Madison Davenport is a bit bland as his daughter Kate and Brandon Soo Hoo is likeable and sparky as his adopted son Scott.
Jessie Garcia plays a new character, Texas Ranger Freddie Gonzalez and he’s a watchable presence even if his character is a bit too earnest at times. Eiza Gonzalez has some big shoes to fill, however, as she replaces the luscious Salma Hayek as Santanica Pandemonium.
From Dusk Till Dawn is an interesting experiment which, so far, has not really worked. There’s that tricky path to tread. If one follows too closely to the original path then there’s no point in the show beyond a longer retelling of an original story. On the other hand, if you deviate too far, why bother making the show at all?
Let’s hope the story comes together, I am curious to see if the Titty Twister will show up in all it’s insane glory on a TV show!