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lord of the spies

Michael Flatley's much-anticipated spy thriller was finally press screened today - here's our review

We’ve seen Flatley’s debut film – here’s what we made of it.

AN EX-SPY gone good. A Caribbean hideaway hotel beloved of criminals. A local priest looking for a confession. A string of tanned young women. A mysterious object that could have devastating effects for the planet.

And a former Riverdance star getting his chance to be James Bond.

Welcome to the world of Blackbird.

In 2018, it was announced that hotstepper Michael Flatley had not only written, directed, self-financed AND produced a movie, but was starring in it as a troubled secret agent. He even had his own production company: Dancelord Films. Movie buffs clamoured to find out when it was due to be released, and with just a film poster to go on, they could only guess at its quality. 

But then the film sank without a trace. Not a peep about it until it won an award at the mysterious Monaco Streaming Festival. Was the film so bad that it couldn’t get a distributor? Had Flatley or someone else pulled the plug? Hundreds of words were spilled by film writers eager to find out what was going on. Had the Blackbird croaked?

It turned out the film was in distribution limbo. But then, just a few months ago, came the word: it had been picked up by Wildfire Distribution, who had also distributed the likes of Black ’47 and Wolfwalkers.

It’s set to be released in cinemas this Friday. The Blackbird sings! 

And this morning, a group of critics and press – including The Journal – got to see the long-awaited, heavily anticipated movie.

So. Is it a vanity project, only made to allow Flatley to live out his Bond dreams? Is it as bad as the so-bad-it’s-good cult favourite The Room? Is it so bad it’s just, well, bad? Here’s what we learned when we watched Blackbird. 

WildCard Distribution / YouTube

Vanity project or not?

First off, Flatley denies the film is a vanity project, telling the Hollywood Reporter: “I want to be clear about this — I didn’t finance it because I wanted to make a vanity project. It would have just taken too long to raise the money, and I didn’t know what I’d be doing next year.”

In his defence, he has shown interest in acting before, and starred in two shorts, A Little Bit of Tear (he played a ‘drunken, homeless clown‘) and Till Forever (set in WWII). And when you’re a retired former megastar Irish dancer, why not spend time writing a film of your own, I guess?

But on the other hand, if you write, direct, produce, and star in a film (with the title role going to you), then it’s fair to say that what you’re doing falls under the vanity project umbrella. Whether you think it’s a pejorative term or not might depend on how good the film is. And no one who ever makes a vanity project ever owns up to it either…

In his feature debut, Flatley plays Victor Blackley, aka Blackbird. If you thought that he was going to be a troubled ex-spy with a dark past, who once did something that he wants to atone for, and who spends a lot of the film thinking back to that moment while also dealing in the present tense with a baddie who ends up staying at his hotel the Blue Moon in Barbados, to which he moved after ending his spy career, well… you’d be right.

Blackbird (the film, not the man, though perhaps both) is clearly influenced by the swathes of spy films, and wears all of those clichés on its off-white dinner jacket sleeve. So we have a scene with a dead girlfriend, replete with rain bucketing down in a show of pathetic fallacy, as Blackbird’s right-hand man Matiti (Anthony Chisholm) places a gloved hand on his shoulder to express sympathy. (For some reason, the person is being buried in the front garden of an Irish big house. Sure look.)

You also have a scene that takes place over a game of poker – ding, ding, ding! You have a glamorous ex (Nicole Evans, who has starred in Captain America) who wears a white bikini just like Ursula Andress in Dr No. You have a stunning, exotic setting and plenty of shots of waves breaking on the sand. You have lots of jaunty hats. Lots of them.

You have lines like “Let go a little”, “You can’t go on living without love!” and “Drive!”, said as someone hops into a car alongside someone they shouldn’t be in a car with. You have a group of spies called The Chieftains (an homage to Flatley’s first major role on the world stage perhaps?).

You also have the retrograde white protagonist and baddies who are almost exclusively men of colour (save for Eric Roberts’ Blake Molyneaux, but more on him later).

And of course you have a MacGuffin, an object which in this film has the power to obliterate part of the world’s population. It’s not any weirder than what we got in, say, Tenet, and it makes as much sense.

Of course, clichés abound in spy films, and if you didn’t have common clichés or tropes you’d be missing what makes the likes of Bond enjoyable – the knowledge that certain things are inevitable. Flatley has obviously watched his fair share of spy films, and knows what beats he has to hit. But what about shooting up some of them, shaking – not stirring – them up a little, just like he did with Irish dance? 

In Blackbird, nothing’s shaken or stirred, not even the basket of clichés that the plot points were taken from. 

Brooding performance

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And so on to his performance. On stage, Flatley commands the place, but stays silent, letting his dancing feet do the talking. He’s held on to a lot of that silence here. He spends much of the film brooding, thinking, remembering, a pained look on his face while he does.

We’re shown flashbacks to some of those memories, which have lots of fire and men toting guns in them. We know Something Bad Has Happened In His Past to make him brood so. 

It’s actually quite refreshing to see him create a character who doesn’t try to take over the screen, but when he does talk it’s frequently in clichés. Still, Flatley doesn’t come across as the worst actor – certainly not as bad as we feared, though that doesn’t say much – which is mainly due to the performance of one or two of the supporting cast. He’s clearly comfortable in front of the camera. Many of his scenes are just him doing things – tying a bow tie, putting on shaving cream, waking up on a beach – without actually saying anything.

But he’s a lot lower-key than you might anticipate, and it’s only towards the end that he briefly gets to show his secret agent Beating Baddies Up skills (and one of those scenes got a hoot of laughter at the screening, because it happens entirely out of shot). 

It’s Roberts who gives Blackbird its Hollywood edge. He plays the over-the-top villain with aplomb, really leaning into the role and chewing on every line with his flashy veneers. After playing hundreds of characters over the years, he’s a dab hand at being the Baddie Who’s Very Bad.  

What’s very clear from the script is that Flatley wants Blackbird, on the other hand, to be a man of principle. He is a man who Thinks Deeply About Things. He is a man who Wants To Do The Right Thing Even Though He Has Done Bad Things Before. 

And so we get a scene where he turns down a young woman’s advances – as she literally strips to her underwear in his bedroom – because of the aforesaid Brooding Over The Bad Thing That Happened. This is a man who has morals (sort of), damnit. 

Which brings us to one of the main crimes committed by this film: every single female character is around half the age of the men whose arm they are on.

Flatley and his co-stars Patrick Bergin (Sleeping With The Enemy, Patriot Games), Eric Roberts (The Dark Knight, The Expendables) and Ian Beattie (Game of Thrones – and who is rather solid as Nick, Blackbird’s former partner) – every single one of them is teamed up at one point with a woman who is at most in her 30s.

I’m just going to assume that in the world of Blackbird, all women drop dead at the age of 40 due to a mystery virus. It’s the only reason I can think of for their absence. 

Blackbird himself is a hit with said women in his 60s. But you wouldn’t expect anything less from a character who wears his shirts unbuttoned almost to his navel. 

Uncanny valley

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One of the surprising parts of Blackbird was how, even though it’s just 80 minutes, you do feel every one of them. It’s not full of explosive moments. But by not making a film that’s two and a half hours long, Flatley has given his audience a gift. 

Viewers will notice some uncanny valley goings-on at the beginning of the film. A few of the early scenes look like homages to film noir, with period-esque costume and styling, a smoky office, a mysterious man in a trenchcoat… only for the man to emerge onto the streets of modern-day London. Insert shruggie emoji here. 

There’s also a very noisy bird throughout all of the outdoor scenes at the Blue Moon hotel which wasn’t removed in post-production. Maybe it was a blackbird (not sure they live in Barbados – a cousin perhaps?) having its say. 

Is Blackbird worth watching? Of course – who wouldn’t want to miss the chance of watching Michael Flatley’s movie debut? Well, some absolutely might. This is marmite for film fans, but also for those who have been following Flatley’s career post-retirement, which has included being invited to perform at Donald Trump’s inauguration.

For those that do want to go, you pretty much know what you’re in for here. This is a guy who sells paintings that he tap-danced paint onto. This is a man not short of self esteem and confidence.

This is a man whose motto is: “Nothing is impossible. Follow your dreams.”


Blackbird is in cinemas from Friday 2 September.

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