starring Michael Caine, Tom Courtenay, David Hemmings, Bob Hoskins
written and directed by Fred Schepisi, based on the novel by Graham Swift
by Walter Chaw Jack's (Michael Caine) in a box--more accurately, his ashes are in an urn. His "last orders" (a term used in London pubs to announce a "last call" that serves double duty here) are for his remains to be scattered off a pier in Margate, a day's travel for his three mates and his car salesman son, Vince (Ray Winstone). Lucky (Bob Hoskins; Anatol Yusef as a young man) likes to play the horses, Vic (Tom Courtenay; Cameron Fitch) is a stone-faced and quiet undertaker, and Lenny (David Hemmings; Nolan Hemmings) is the blowhard. Together, they bicker, get toasted, bicker some more, and stagger off to get filmed in hangdog medium shots that serve as platforms for flashbacks. That it's well performed seems unavoidable, especially after Helen Mirren gets tossed into the mix as Jack's widow Amy (Kelly Reilly as a young woman), but Last Orders is a dirge of lazy plotting.
Like most trips to bountiful, end-of-the-line pilgrimages make for winsomely plodding fare. Fred Schepisi's Last Orders moves along at a glacial pace, dragging its feet with the same kind of mournful regret as its quartet of old men on their way to bid adieu to a dearly departed. As with many ultimate travelogues, the film takes pains to offer staid flashback sequences lensed in the tired sepia-tinted glow of autumnal nostalgia that just so happen to encompass an impossible number of historical tableaux. Last Orders stumbles the most when engaged in these flashbacks: the courtship of our central couple, the wartime reveal of a deep dark Battle of Britain birthing secret, a sweetly abortive affair--each redolent with bad wigs and the strain of trying to keep up with which young actor is playing whom. In the case of the lesser characters, it's never entirely clear, and Last Orders, though it seems to know this confusion is a shortfall of the piece in that it offers occasional refreshers, struggles mightily to maintain interest in a story that was only ever fresh in Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries.
For a time, Last Orders plays like an elegy for the magnificent British gangster dramas of the Seventies. Subplots involving horse racing and ill-borrowed cash promise to lead to crime epiphany, particularly considering the involvement of such veterans of the mob trenches as Caine (the original Get Carter), Hemmings (The Squeeze), and Hoskins (The Long Good Friday). Alas, Last Orders is less like Going in Style, Law and Disorder, and Atlantic City than like Driving Ms. Daisy as it indulges in British cinema's bizarre fetishism (I can't tell you how tired I am of seeing the parliament building on the Thames in UK flicks) and a general malaise fuelled by its disjointed narrative.
Last Orders joins Iris as a 2001 import holdover indicated by good performances squandered on gimmicky devices that detract from coherence. They both take a turn for the grotesque at some point in their running time--probably the moment at which one realizes that aging thespians seem to want these roles not for the quality of the material, but for the opportunity to provide a moving epitaph to their careers while brooding on the melancholy of growing old. Last Orders is accordingly self-indulgent and theatrical, asking its formidable stable to roll their eyes and grab at one another's throats (see: especially an awkward scuffle between a sleazy Winstone and a pathetic Lenny) rather than employ the considerable acting chops that have gotten them to this point. Watch a scene where Mirren's Amy makes a phone call to the boys informing them of Jack's death: It is subtle, piquant, true, and a painful indication of what Last Orders by all rights should have been instead of the contrived drudgery that it is. Originally published: March 1, 2002.