If one were to imagine 2022 as a year of filmic vindication, the examples wouldn’t be entirely obvious. That is, save for the detective caper subgenre. The first half of the year saw a bloated turkey in Kenneth Branagh’s Death on the Nile, the auteur reviving Agatha Christie’s famed Poirot for a second glance. Fast forward to the award cycle-heavy second half, and once more we’re flirting with Christie, indirectly, and increasingly fictitious. Taking a page from the playbooks of Clue, Knives Out, and The Ladykillers, director Tom George nudges to the front of the line, if only briefly before Glass Onion steals the shadow. See How They Run does just enough to ride the whodunit wave at peak surf, stopping short of maintaining any manner of follow-through, valiantly rescued by a versed ensemble who embrace the material, unheeded by its hesitancy. At the very least, it can buck this year’s trend of London-based character tales uncertain of its charisma.
Much of the latter point relies so much on its setting, the second in as many months to tackle post-war London in a non-cynical light. It’s 1953, and the West End is abuzz with a hit (and still ongoing) production of Christie’s page-turner The Mousetrap. So much that producers are circling to adapt it into a screen smash. Leo Kopernik (Adrian Brody) is attached to direct, from a script by head-butting Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo). However, as the company celebrates their 100th performance with ink looking to dry on contracts, he is murdered with tongue removed. An oddly suspicious affair, with all on the cast labeled a suspect.
Entering in the picture to organize the myriad contradictions of ‘who killed who’ is Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell), an experienced detective with a nascent eye for the deceptive. His background, however, could not prepare him for the mild impediments stopping his thought process. The case is already difficult enough without him combating a mild drinking problem, and playing nice with overconfident rookie Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan). She’s looking to impress before an internal placement exam, crafty with a notepad and pen while interviewing potential witnesses, and tamping down untamed personality quirks.
It’s perhaps their bond as mismatched allies overcompensating for a story most unsure of what it wants to say. George (This Country), working from Mark Chappell’s (The Rack Pack) screenplay is lost from the get-go with establishing a proper tone. Does it want to be more like Wes Anderson than Christie, more Christie than Noel Coward? Perhaps there’s no altering detriment in leaning heavily on one’s influences, long as the lines are properly thought out. What meanders about here is half a farce, half a darker piece of suspense in line with Christie’s bibliography. Two concepts, running separately, segueing in choppy waters. Or at least in multi-angular editing, certain shots playing on split-screen to illustrate opposing viewpoints, a rather smart if not also overused touch.
When George looks to go comical on the material, that’s his strongest asset, to not take it all so seriously. The evident appearance of British excess, flat or warm colors, and a notable penchant for wallpaper are clear examples on a visual scale. From a dialogue position, it’s an endless wildfire of glitzy indifferences, always as fast with either a retort or a revelation. Hearing Brody narrate the tale with a droll intonation does support this approach quite readily, so too for his antagonistic back and forth with a very game Oyelowo, effortlessly flexing his theatrical muscles without abandon. Often in step with a fictional, spot-on caricature of Richard Attenborough (a dapper Harris Dickinson), the play’s top-billed name.
Through that corner of hilarity, George manages to tap into the film’s personal side, the further we look into Stoppard’s perspective. Muddled as the danger may seem, this aging sleuth still proves how much he cares for the craft, despite claims he’s past his prime, tired, drunk, and unfocused. The sort of negativity which Commissioner Scott (a calming Tom Key) hopes to turn around, looking for only the best work of him and Stalker. And the pair are no less of a crackerjack duo than if it were Peter Sellers filling the elder’s shoes. Rockwell steers clear of a blatant impression, absorbing the famed Goon’s physicality to complete the picture. More often, though, it’s a ferocious Ronan who drops everything (figuratively) to steal the show, her bright pluck engaging a newfound optimism that would be sorely absent otherwise in George’s position.
It may only be the total lack of cohesiveness to contend with, fisticuffs raised in a duel for which direction the plot should take. It’s never serious for long, nor is it funny beyond hefty doses lasting minutes at a time. Its entertainment value can at least sustain itself before all is resolved, capturing the lavishness of fame in a flashy corner of the world with details ever sharp. An easy feat for Amanda McArthur (How to Build a Girl) on production design, making London at night time an enriching leitmotif in itself. And for Daniel Pemberton (The Bad Guys), whose underscore wastes no time diving into minute playfulness to counteract its tawdrier side steps.
What both George and Chappell attempt to mix together in this stewpot of ideas bears promise for an enjoyable, near-satisfying mystery. See How They Run is at least satisfying to witness, even as its potential for a suspenseful, character-driven affair is stalled by a sluggish inability to shift out of first gear. Of course, the mystery does get more nerve-wracking as we go, but not so much the underlying buildup. It is frustrating when the tension slips, almost to where it becomes ingratiating. Eventually, when the cast look to recompense, the page merely a jumping off point, that’s when this uneven romp turns enlivening. (B+; 3/5 Horns Up!)
See How They Run is in theaters September 16; rated PG-13 for some violent/bloody images and a sexual reference; 98 minutes.