Note: This review is part three of three in the COTC Nicole Kidman trilogy. Read part one and part two.
Every once in a while, a movie comes along that eludes genre classification. I remember a film called The Doberman Gang, about a group of criminals who train doberman pincers to rob banks. Then there's the George Lucas masterpiece Howard the Duck, in which a war between a planet of walking, talking ducks and a planet of angry space octopi comes to a head in Cleveland. Then there's Watch the Shadows Dance, an Australian import from 1987 about a group of high-school students who spend their school hours learning a punishing form of gymkata from an ex-military gym teacher, and their nights playing a high-stakes ninja paintball game on the empty streets of their city.
The game is called Deep Coup, and it goes something like this: the challengers, armed with rackable, paint-filled shotguns, descend on an abandoned warehouse where the reigning champion is guarding a bell on a rope - the sanctuary. To get past the champion is to win the game, but to lose is to get 'marked' by the champ's paintgun. This is where the second component of the game comes into play: it's on the loser to explain away the neon slash on his cheek to family, teachers, whoever. The adults cannot be let in on the secret game.
The reigning champ is Robby (Tom Jennings), who lives sans-parents in a giant loft and wields dangerous weapons before first period every day, which everyone else in the film regards as completely normal. Sounds realistic, no? The movie is so informed by adolescent fantasies that it wouldn't be at all surprising to find that it was penned by a bright youngster. The 'club' that the Deep Coup regulars hang out in feels more like a roller-skating hangout than a place where one could conceivably get carded. (The live music is a strange Echo and the Bunnymen knock-off) At the roller-rink/bar they hold court and see off those who are not worthy to join their club, the same way I used to dismiss people from my He-Man Appreciation Club when I was 12.
Robby's biggest rival for Deep Coup champion is his would-be girlfriend Amy (a frizzy-headed Nicole Kidman). Both she and Robby exhibit a curious kind of amorality that leads them to believe that protecting the game is of paramount importance no matter what happens - even if someone gets killed, as almost happens early in the film. As the leaders of the club, they issue the talking points to the other club members when a teacher, Ms. Spane, begins to get wind of the dangerous games being played by her students in off-hours:
Henry: Maybe we should cancel game challenges, just for a while.
Amy: Spane's not a problem, Henry.
Henry: Yeah, but maybe the game is. Brian almost got killed last night.
Amy: Oh, he's always complaining about something.
If Robby is the James Dean character and Amy is Natalie Wood, then the Corey Allen villain is Duncan, played by Craig Pearce. Duncan arrives on cue at opportune moments to inform Amy that she has a "great ass" so that he can be gripped by the lapels and hustled out of the room. Duncan also insults Robby' martial arts skills and openly vies for Amy's attention. This three's-a-crowd situation leads up to a fantasy sequence mid-way through the film that's both over the top and hilariously acute in its gauging of male maturity levels.
It goes something like this: Robby visualizes Amy throwing herself down onto a bed and inviting Duncan - the Deep Coup champion in this fantasy sequence - to have his way with her as she laughs and mocks Robby. The gym teacher also appears out of nowhere and informs Robby that it's perfectly natural. After all, Duncan is the champ, so its only normal that he goes first, before all the other guys get to take their turn. This is, of course, the most monstrous fate imaginable for the adolescent male: other guys stealing your prize (and if the prize is a 19-year old Nicole Kidman, multiply by pi).
The movie is a kaleidoscope of odd little scenes and details that have you laughing throughout. For example, the school enforces a strict black-and-white dress code - white t-shirts, black sweaters, white shirt under black vest, and so on. Such a thing may be commonplace in Australian schools, but why do the students uphold this color scheme off-hours? When a movie is conspicuous about pushing an odd contrivance like this, you have to ask what the filmmakers are up to. There are also a number of fighting and kickboxing scenes that are staged in such a hilarious way that you have to believe no practice at all went into them.
Part of the film's weird vibe also comes from the lack of any obvious dramatic tension, except for the presence of the overly-committed martial arts teacher who may or may not have some involvement with the game. The biggest fear the movie sets up is that engaging in bloodsports in the city streets might somehow distract from homework time - a point that is actually made once or twice during the story. Although keeping these students away from their homework wouldn't be such a bad idea: the movie's one big classroom scene has an English instructor teaching her students the old conspiracy theory that Shakespeare was a fraud who did not write his own works. What planet is this movie on? No wonder these kids are out of control.