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The Dead Sleep Easy

2008, Starring Ian Hodgkinson, Dave Courtney, Martin Cove. Directed by Lee Demarbre (Odessa Filmworks).

Fans of Lee Demarbre's previous Ottawa-shot features, Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter and Harry Knuckles and the Pearl Necklace, might be surprised with his newest effort, a highly cinematic gangster film that dispenses with the grainy stock, badly synced dubbing and grade Z thrills that previously defined his work. The Dead Sleep Easy still boasts a pulp novel plot and a host of knowing genre buff references, but it's a cleanly shot effort that proves Demarbre can easily transcend the trappings of the films he love when he chooses to do so.

The Dead Sleep Easy was hatched by Demarbre and Thunder Bay, Ont., born Mexican wrestling superstar El Vampiro (AKA Ian Hodgkinson) while they were working on a documentary about the grappler's life. Based on Hodgkinson's real life before he graduated to the ring, The Dead Sleep Easy is a down and dirty tale of revenge that draws inspiration from everything from pulpy noir and gangster films to spaghetti westerns and horror.

Shot on location in the sleazy streets of Guadalaraja, The Dead Sleep Easy follows the rise and fall of The Champ (Hodgkinson), a once-promising wrestler who ended his career when he broke an opponent's neck in the ring. Now under the thumb of local crime kingpin Tlaloc (Dave Courtney), he is paired up with a psychotic criminal, Bob (Martin Kove), to carry out Tlaloc's dirty dealings. Things turn for the worse as The Champ begins to spiral into a painful drug addiction and watches his girlfriend (Ana Sidel) leave him and shack up with his boss. The breaking point comes when The Champ helps Bob smuggle a truck full of Mexican citizens into the U.S., only to see his partner shoot them down in cold blood--all for the purposes of a Peckinpah-inspired film he wants to make. This morally bankrupt bloodbath forces The Champ to reconsider the direction of his life, and he seeks out vengeance on the gangsters that have done him wrong.

Lucha libre--Mexican masked wrestling --has always played a prominent role in Canadian B-film, especially in Demarbre's work. Both Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter and Harry Knuckles and the Pearl Necklace feature the character of El Santos (played by Jeff Moffet), an obvious tribute to Mexico's most infamous wrestling (and film) superstar, El Santo. It's little surprise, then, that the director has hooked up with a real south-of-the-border grappler for his latest effort. Even still, this isn't the campy riff on Santo or Blue Demon you might expect from Demarbre's previous films, but a sober, nicely shot DV feature that focuses less on athleticism and more on the street-wise Champ exorcising his personal demons in a world of inescapable crime.

While the film has a few of the same pacing problems as his previous film, Harry Knuckles and the Pearl Necklace, it's also much more ambitiously scripted, experimenting a bit with non-linear storytelling and refusing to rely on camp as a crutch (although a Ennio Morricone-inspired soundtrack and some H.G. Lewis-styled gore where eyeballs are ripped out and dropped into a fish tank will appeal to fans of his earlier work).

Also interesting is the film's casting, which sees Demarbre working with recognizable actors for the first time. The Krays' Dave Courtney, and Martin Kove, perhaps best known as the unscrupulous Cobra Kai Sensei in The Karate Kid, pull off a one-two punch of suitably despicable villains, and help support the less experienced Hodgkinson. A local cast of other wrestlers and reportedly real-life criminals, also help give the effort a shot of realism, and Harry Knuckles star Phil Caracas even makes a memorable cameo as Carlito, a migrant worker.

While the results are entertaining enough and certainly add some notable diversification to Demarbre and screenwriter Ian Driscoll's filmographies, there's a definite danger of the film being lumped in with the never-ending wave of Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez-inspired crime dramas. This would be a shame, as The Dead Sleep Easy is a sometimes thoughtful, engaging film that is just as substantial as it is flashy--it's one of the very few "serious" Canadian action films of the past decade, and easily ranks as one of the best.

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