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Criminally Overlooked: “He Never Died”

January 30, 2016

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When you come across a movie with a title like He Never Died, which stars Henry Rollins, and features a poster with Rollins bellowing like a Trump supporter at a feminist poetry-slam, well, you gotta start sharpening the knives. I mean…you read that last sentence, right? Okay, so I don’t have to explain the tremendous potential for mockery. Except, holy shit, He Never Died—clunky title aside—is actually a really good little movie. And what makes it so enjoyable is a perfectly modulated action-comic performance by Rollins, who shows off some fairly sophisticated acting chops. Throw in some moody direction by first time-ish director Jason Krawczyk, and you got precisely the kind of under-the-radar gem that gives B-movies a good name.

So, He Never Died, is basically a couple days in the life of Rollins’s Jack, a guy who seems to have taken the noir anti-hero archetype and cranked it up to 11. Jack lives alone in a run down flophouse, interacting with almost no one except for his dealer (of what, we will see) and the cute waitress at his local diner. His only social outlet is playing bingo at a senior center. Jack goes through life as if the simplest of human interactions is wearying at best and an annoyance at worst.

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Jack’s life is disrupted by the appearance of Andrea (Jordan Todosey) 19 year-old daughter he never knew existed. Andrea doesn’t bring Jack to life, as the standard cliché goes, but her presence in his life causes his aggressive isolation to collapse. First, it gives Cara, the cute waitress (Kate Greenhouse) an opportunity to engage him in some conversation. Then things get bad when a flock of freelance toughs show up, targeting the people in his life (it’s a short list), and that includes Andrea. When she’s taken, he reluctantly goes into Liam Neeson mode to get her back.

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So far, so simple. Except the thugs literally have no idea what they’re dealing with. Seems Jack isn’t exactly mortal. He has long scars on his back like something was removed. He had a trunk full of ancient relics and millions of dollars in cash. He also shrugs off things like knives and bullets when they’re used on him. Jack is so old, he explains, he doesn’t know how old he is, “But I’m in the Bible, if that means anything,” he tells Cara at one point.

If all of this sounds like a dark revenge fantasy, well, that’s because I haven’t gotten to the rich comedic vein the film mines in Jack. Where any other film would treat the revenge plot as supercharged engine for the plot, Jack treats the whole thing as a massive inconvenience. He can barely believe he has to go through all this crap again, and how hopelessly small-potatoes it is. You know, comparatively.

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This movie only works because Rollins’ performance as Jack is so sublime. He plays Jack’s seeming-immortality as a curse that has wrecked him to the point where social interactions are such a bother he’s practically on the spectrum. It’s not that he doesn’t know how to act around people, he’s just long since stopped putting any effort into it. As he re-engages with society, Rollins slowly builds Jack’s personality to hint at the eons behind his eyes. To call Rollins a revelation in this movie is understating it. He’s simply fantastic.

Compounding the offbeat tone of the film, is some truly promising direction by tyro auteur Krawczyk. The cruddy exurbs where the movie takes place seems both utterly perfect and vaguely unmoored from the rest of world, populated by the working poor, wage slaves, and small-time hoods who’re miles away from a real criminal outfit.

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Krawczyk also shows off some impressive directing chops in balancing the tone of the movie, never letting it slip too far in either direction. It’s never too fantastical or too slapstick. Maintaining an even tone in a movie that straddles this many genres is a minor miracle, but Krawczyk does it effortlessly and the movie clips along.

Howard Hawkes once said that for a movie to work it needs one great scene and no bad ones, and this movie meets that standard. There are no bad scenes, and there is one, supremely well-crafted scene of eerie suspense, as Jack makes a late-night visit to his local diner, only to find it occupied by a gang of thugs waiting for him. Krawczyk moves his camera through the diner’s fluorescent-lit emptiness, following Jack, until revealing the thugs so matter-of-factly, they may as well be menus advertising the daily specials. It’s supremely unsettling and sets us up for the conflict to come.

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He Never Died is a perfectly example of a low-budget movie whose grasp never exceeds its reach, and because of this it works perfectly. It’s the kind of movie that gives lie to the notion that the currently business model of filmmaking has doomed us to a choice between empty spectacle like Transformers: Just Give Us Your Damn Money and the latest Asylum Pictures tax dodge. Hopefully, we’ll see more performances like this Rollins in the future–when we’re referring to this as the movie that first showed Krawczyk’s promise. 

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