Cue and A
One thing you can't accuse Luc Besson of is a lack of ambition – okay, so his name is these days most often attached to a string of formulaic and vaguely dodgy action-thrillers (Lockout, Colombiana, the Taken series – the list goes on and on) but as a director he shows considerably more range, including a serious portrait of Aung Sung Kyi (The Lady), a series of children's movies, and the charming comic fantasy The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec.
These two tracks of Besson's career seem to collide in his latest offering, Maximum Break, which is currently on an extremely limited release in only certain territories – perhaps a sign of the very troubled history this project has had. One level, this is a sober bio-pic of one of Britain's foremost sporting heroes, but on another it is a gritty thriller in the traditionally excessive Besson vein.
Liam Neeson reunites with Besson to play former UK snooker championship winner John Virgo, and the film shows us Virgo's early life on the streets of Salford and his discovery of the beautiful game that would bring him fame and fortune. To be honest, Neeson struggles a little to capture Virgo's uniquely adverb-mangling Mancunian drawl, but in most other ways his performance is very decent, his portrayal of Virgo's romance with his first wife (interestingly played by Tracy Marrow) being especially touching.
However, as Virgo reaches the peak of his snooker-playing abilities, he becomes aware of the forces of corruption and criminality threatening to take over the game he loves so much. Soon Virgo realises it’s down to him and his fellow players to take a stand, and if this means operating outside the law (and the WPBSA regulations), then so be it...
Besson is obviously more comfortable with the hard-boiled thriller elements of the story than the biography, and this is certainly an interesting and little-known story – based on Rex Waindown's shocking non-fiction book, The Tainted Baize. However it’s easy to see why many people are wondering if Besson and his writers haven't taken a few too many liberties in adapting it for the screen.
For one thing, it's quite hard to tell when this story is meant to be set, as not all of the snooker players featured in the film were active at the same time. I suppose not everyone who was really involved wanted their image used in this film, so the film-makers may not have had a lot of choice, and at least we are left with a good cast playing the rest of Virgo's cue-wielding vigilantes: James McAvoy is John Higgins, Jet Li plays Ding Junwei, Mark Strong is Willie Thorne, and Jean Reno plays Alain Robidoux. Sadly appearing all too briefly in a role he was born for is Jason Statham as former world champion Peter Ebdon. (Also in a supporting role is Renee Zellweger as the BBC's face of snooker, Hazel Irvine.)
As thrillers go, the plot is perhaps a little too simplistic, but Besson stages the action with his customary verve, with the climactic gunfight inside the Crucible Theatre of Sheffield being a particular highpoint. Some may object to Mark Strong's touching death scene, where Willie Thorne is ambushed by the bad guys and passes away in Virgo's arms, mainly on the grounds that Willie Thorne is in reality still alive and commentating for the BBC, but I think artistic licence is justified in this case.
The only real objection I can make to this story concerns the element which has mired Maximum Break in legal trouble almost since it was announced – the identity of the villain of the piece. In terms of the plot of the film, and the narrative shape of the piece, it makes perfect sense for the villain to be revealed as John Virgo's old ally and friend Dennis Taylor (strikingly depicted here by Morgan Freeman) – but, as Taylor and his lawyers have always said, he is not and has never been a machete-wielding gangster mastermind, and the film probably should do more to make this clear.
Then again, with any kind of biopic, the question of how closely one should stick ot the facts is always a central concern. Maximum Break may wander further from the strict truth of history than most, but its virtues in terms of its action choreography, its illumination of a little-known sporting milieu, and its useful clarification of the 'Miss' rule make up for this, in my opinion. Well-worth seeing, but good luck finding a cinema that's actually showing it.