"Son of a Gun" is a derivative crime thriller that sputters when it should propel, skims when it should probe. Although first-time feature writer-director Julius Avery may aspire to become a sort of Aussie Michael Mann — and perhaps lays an apt foundation here to do so — he has a ways to go in developing the kind of characters and world we can solidly invest in.
J.R. (Brenton Thwaites) is a naively game 19-year-old who lands in a rough Western Australia prison for an unnamed offense. By the time he's released six months later, he's made a devil's pact with fellow convict Brendan (an ill-fitting Ewan McGregor), a violent career criminal who has protected J.R. "inside" so J.R. can help him on the "outside."
That assist: to spring Brendan and cohorts Sterlo (Matt Nable) and Merv (Eddie Baroo) from the slammer via a daring escape involving a hijacked sightseeing helicopter. (How J.R. maneuvers that feat of derring-do feels, to say the least, far-fetched.)
Once reunited, father-figure Brendan embroils J.R. in a high-stakes gold mine robbery that would seem to entail far more intricate planning than we're made privy to. But the heist and its aftermath are complicated by J.R.'s evolving allegiances toward Brendan, a Russian kingpin (Jacek Koman) and the beautiful Tasha (Alicia Vikander), an Eastern European femme fatale who, of course, catches J.R.'s eye.
If J.R. were less of a cipher, Brendan more of a uniquely textured anti-hero and the overall plotting clearer and swifter, this often-atmospheric film might have proved more compelling. But, as is, it's an unsatisfying trip to the dark side.
"Son of a Gun."
MPAA rating: R for violence, language, sexuality, nudity and drug use.
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes.
Playing: Laemmle's NoHo 7, North Hollywood.