Early in The Combination Redemption, the aggressive but fundamentally decent boxing trainer John (George Basha) barks and hollers at one of his pupils. “Toes toes toes, get on ya fuckin’ toes!” he yells, reminding me of Clint Eastwood’s grizzled trainer from Million Dollar Baby – except without Eastwood’s age and gravitas. When he is pulled aside by his boss (the late Tony Ryan) and asked “why you pushin’ the kid so hard for?”, John – the film’s protagonist – shoots back: “He needs to be pushed.”
But in the original The Combination, an interracial Australian drama from 2009 that became controversial when one of its actors was charged with sexual assault and (in separate incidents) violence broke out at screenings in Sydney, the point was made that pushing people hard doesn’t work. John, a Lebanese-Australian newly released from jail, maintained a zero tolerance attitude towards the troublesome behaviour of his younger brother Charlie (Firass Dirani).
At one point the no-nonsense older bro – who manhandled his sibling and berated him for hanging out with the wrong crowd – flushed Charlie’s drug supply down the toilet. Rather than helping, this led to the young man’s death, gunned down by a gangster in the final act. More powerful than the message that “crime doesn’t pay” was the idea that you can kill a person with kindness, an interesting observation most likely unintended by Basha (who wrote the screenplay) and the director, David Field.
The Combination Redemption returns Basha and Field to their previous roles. Mo (Rahel Romahn) owes a lot of money to dangerous drug dealers, just as Charlie did in the original. And John has started dating a woman (Neveen Hanna) whose parents implore her to choose somebody else – just as the parents of Sydney (Clare Bowen) did in the first film.
By returning to the same world and populating it with very similar situations, certain questions beckon. What justifies a second outing? What insights can the film-makers offer that they didn’t provide the first time?
As it turns out, very few. This time around, as in last year’s Romper Stomper TV series, “alt-right” extremists have got their grubby hands on the narrative, spewing hate speech such as “this is our land” and “it’s time to reclaim our country”. In this film they are bong-smoking meatheads who drift into the story’s peripheries, in a kind of moral and intellectual no man’s land, not really punished (nor praised) for their actions, their presence confronting but never meaningful.
Nobody expects a screenwriter to get to the root of racism but this film is far from deep thinking. It deploys terrible characters as if they are spices, adding flavour to the drama. The idea that society has left certain kinds of people behind is found in the great crime drama The Boys, which makes a point about disenfranchised lives and feelings of discontent with the chilling message that evil can be random and ubiquitous.
With each new Australian film depicting racially motivated violence, the feeling inside me intensifies that I may have under-appreciated the writer/director Abe Forsythe’s gutsy black comedy Down Under when I wrote about it in 2016. Rather than over-intellectualising these dark subjects, or including them for dramatic flavour, Forsythe’s message is both more simple and more profound: that racism can be about idiotic tribalism as much as xenophobia.
In The Combination Redemption the drama sometimes feels flaky and the ideologies of the film-makers confused. In one scene, for instance, John implores a pair of hostile blokes to “talk like men” before flashing a handgun and driving away. Does he, or the writer, or the director, really think this is how a man talks? What is the point of this scene?
The film’s moral weight backs John, as did the first movie’s, despite his aggressive behaviour and unreliable temperament. The message seems to be that he is a real man because he exhibits both physical and mental strength. A better message, expressed provocatively in the new Gillette commercial, is that real men show compassion rather than aggression; real men use their brains instead of their fists.
The performances are strong across the board and the production values are fine also, though there is nothing very cinematic about Field’s direction or Robert C Morton’s cinematography. And, having concluded the original film in a rush of gunfire and violence, the film-makers have set themselves a standard: if the sequel ends in a similar way, we know they have failed.