Ill-Gotten Gains

MoviesEntertainmentSocial IssuesSlaveryDjimon HounsouSteven SpielbergThe Amistad

Friday September 18, 1998

     There are times when the indomitable drive to get a labor-of-love movie made and released is not a triumphant occurrence. We tend to hear only about the cases in which the filmmakers' faith was justified and noteworthy screen careers were launched. But what about the others? At times it might be a mercy to dash the aspirants' hopes, so that they can get on with their lives.
     "Ill-Gotten Gains," a gross and brutal low-budget shocker about a revolt aboard a pirate slave ship moored off the coast of Africa in the 1860s, is a wincingly clumsy effort. When a movie aims for an overpowering mythic catharsis, and fails, it fails big.
     The young producer-director-screenwriter, Joel Ben Marsden, seems to want to rub our noses in the ugliness of the slaves' suffering and the monstrosity of their captors, certainly a defensible approach. But Marsden throws the strong stuff around so recklessly that it rarely finds a deserving target. This is a good trick, considering the subject matter.
     In the key sequences of brutality--the showpiece beatings, rapes, force-feedings and eye gougings--the tone is off by so many light-years that Marsden seems to relish what he supposedly deplores. The dialogue is stuffed with obscenities and anachronistic modern slang ("No way!" exclaims a startled deckhand), and the lines are rarely just spoken when they be can bellowed, howled, spat or screamed. The leering slavers would look archaic in a silent movie melodrama.
     Thankfully, the impact of the splatter-film gore effects and of the gratuitous on-screen vomiting is blunted by the black-and-white photography. But almost nothing rings true, and without a grounding in plausibility, all the horrors seem gratuitous. The strongest scenes are almost impossible to watch--not because they feel too fearlessly honest but because their deep falseness makes the whole ugly exercise seem pointless, and worse. It's a self-indulgent wallow.
     "Ill-Gotten Gains" was reportedly filmed "on location in Cameroon," but seeing is disbelieving. Some second-unit footage may have been slipped in, but there isn't a single shot in which the actors and the lush scenery appear together. Often the deck of the slave ship is walled off with sheets, concealing the shoreline. (The end credits reveal that filming took place in such exotic ports of call as Long Beach and San Diego.)
     The regal African-born actor Djimon Hounsou, from Steven Spielberg's "Amistad," plays the ringleader of the insurrection. He manages to keep his dignity, even when he's being manhandled by the slavers--and the movie-makers.

Ill-Gotten Gains, 1998. R, for brutal violence including rape, pervasive strong language and some sexual content. A Spats Films presentation of a film by Joel Ben Marsden. Producer-director-writer Joel Ben Marsden. Story by Marsden and Peter Steinberg. Executive producer Donald Wilson. Associate producers Robi Reed-Humes, Steven Adams and Ngwang Oswald Tanyu. Editor David Schaufele. Director of photography Ben Kufrin. Costume designer K.C. Wallace. Music Mike Baum, Tina Meeks, Keith Bilderbeck, Shaluza. Production designer Stacie B. London. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes. Djimon Hounsou as Fyah. Akosua Busia as Fey. De'Aundre Bonds as Pop. Ciabe Hartley as Skinner. Tony Torn as The Vet. Tom Taglang as Captain Cowlie.

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