Written and Directed by Morgan O’Neill

Starring Colin Friels, Bojana Novakovic, Angie Milliken, Bruce Spence, Tony Barry, Chris Haywood, Vince Colosimo, Anh Do

Six Degrees of Separation is a popular game to play for movie trivia fans, and it would seem a long way from Ben Affleck to Sydney’s National Institute of Dramatic Art, but as anyone who’s ever heard of Project Greenlight knows, they’re only four steps apart.

After making several short films, Morgan O’Neill found himself — despite his experience on both sides of the camera — feeling very out of his league filming Solo, the feature that won him the high-profile script competition.

‘I don’t think anything can prepare you for directing a feature,’ the writer/director told Xpress on the Perth leg of his national publicity tour. ‘I was completely unprepared for the sheer volume of questions. You’re this tiny little keyhole everything has to pass through, and nothing happens without the decision coming from you. The job of a director is answering questions and solving problems, that’s pretty much it. I was just so unprepared for the magnitude of that.’

O’Neill also concedes it was pretty trippy being a first time feature director and being in charge of some of the biggest names in film, on both sides of the camera. But he says realising he was surrounded by so much talent convinced him to step back from being the jack of all trades short films bring out in you. ‘Making shorts is such a good learning ground for making feature films because you can make mistakes,’ he explains. ‘I cocked up some of my short films hugely. Some of them are terrific and some of them are just shithouse. I got the opportunity to walk away from the shithouse ones knowing hat I’d never do again. That was immeasurably important to me.’

A trained actor with a quick wit and a bright, clear and lighting-fast speaking voice, O’Neill chose as his first feature territory that many would think of as old hat — a noirish crime thriller featuring a standover man on the (often ill-fated) one last job. He explained to Xpress how so few Australian films are original, but isn’t the One Last Job a genre in itself? What else can O’Neill bring to it? He’s actually the first to concede movies like Solo have been done before, and there’s a good reason.

‘I was really attracted by the idea that I can write a film that in some ways felt familiar I’m happy to use the value of the ghosts of things past to make current storytelling more potent. Shakespeare was right when he said there’s nothing new under the sun, but if I could write a film that felt familiar and takes us somewhere different it would dispense with getting us to that leaping off point, sort of shorthand the audience into understanding the world and then tell the story from there.’

It’s true we’ve seen gangster stories before, and O’Neill admits he was influenced by Two Hands, Chopper, Scorsese and Tarantino. Much of Solo is indeed a new way to tell an old story and a few critics have already bagged it but Xpress reckons it’s because they were all expecting Project Greenlight to spawn this year’s Somersault.

It’s a linear and plain-flavoured movie. It concentrates on tone, dialogue and it has a plot that’s accessible. That’s not the sort of thing movie critics love, but it’s the reason Dan Brown outsells Peter Carey a hundred times over.

Solo introduces us to Barrett (Friels), a professional killer employed by a shadowy organised crime network called The Gentlemen. Barrett has had enough — his job is starting to make him sick and it’s time to get out. As director O’Neill observes, he could have been a banker or a taxi driver — the story’s about making the decision to change your life and dealing with the consequences.

The consequences in this case are that nobody leaves the world of The Gentlemen easily. After standing his ground, Barrett’s overlords agree to let him go if he’ll pull off one final job. University student Billie (Navakovic) has been sniffing around Barrett and his contacts hoping to do her thesis on the Royal Commission on their tails. She’s getting too close, and The Gentlemen want Barrett to make her go away.

There’s a hearty dose of humour, the sort of casual, explosive violence good gangster movies do well, and a twist ending just for good measure.

There’s also a cast containing the cream of Australia’s acting talent with some of the biggest names in the craft from the last 20 years. Together with a director whose head must be still spinning, they pull out all stops for Solo to show you a good time. Don’t expect anything else and you’ll love it.

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