Studio: Vertical Entertainment
Director: Marc Clebanoff
Writer: Frank Krueger
Producer: Frank Krueger, Kinga Philipps, Darren Darnborough, Wylie Small
Stars: Kinga Philipps, Frank Krueger, Louis Mandylor, Kristoff St. John, Tiffany C. Adams, Michael Walton, Danny Trejo
A documentary filmmaker teams with a fallen cop as she explores the underworld of New York City’s crime-ridden subway tunnels.
You have to wonder if there is even a marketing advantage to stunt casting Danny Trejo in a low-budget movie anymore. Big studio releases notwithstanding, it’s a known fact among his fans that he spends more time posing for the DVD sleeves than he does appearing in the movies themselves. People have been burned by “what, that’s it?” reactions to his blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos billed as star turns so many times that Trejo’s name on a box cover cannot possibly be a draw at this point.
The good news for those still lured to his seemingly endless stream of straight to video fare is that Trejo does appear in “20 Ft. Below: The Darkness Descending” for longer than is now the expected norm. Still not enough to put his onscreen minutes in double digits, but without getting up for a bathroom or kitchen trip too often, there is a solid chance of spotting him. The bad news is that it is one of Trejo’s most disappointing performances yet, and not in the curiously strange way that makes him a fascinating character actor.
Deep within the subway bowels of NYC, Danny Trejo is Angel, a crime boss lording over a kingdom of hobo thugs occupying their days terrorizing benevolent derelicts and kidnapping Wall Street yuppie types as a statement against corporate culture. As movie villains go, Angel has intentions that are more than a little ambiguous. There is some vague claptrap about government greed, materialism, “the system” and whatnot, but Angel is lacking in clear-cut motivation. Trejo shoulders only part of the blame, as he is harnessed to a script heavier on hyperbole than anything else. And his character is merely reflective of a movie troubled in expressing its own motivation as well.
Born out of a project that was apparently a webseries in 2009, “20 Ft. Below: The Darkness Descending” is not quite a crime drama, not quite an action thriller, and not quite like anything that can be attributed to a discernible genre. The movie bounces between vignettes resembling late-night infomercials on the plight of the homeless one minute and ready to rumble fistfights the next. Looking to tumble deeper into its own identity crisis, Lifetime network melodrama and good cop/bad cop confrontations also swirl into the mix. The hodgepodge of varied ideas is so mismatched that it has to be asked, who is the target audience for “20 Ft. Below?”
Documentarian Chelsea, who is profiling various underground lifestyles, reacts in horror at the sight of a ritualistically murdered rookie cop. Minutes later, she beams a bright smile while being escorted into a cheery subterranean Kumbaya session of jolly homeless folk enjoying the acoustic strains of a singer-songwriter soundtrack. Maybe such thematic disconnects are a byproduct of the film’s episodic DNA, but threads are yanked from the spool at every end and they have a hard time weaving together for a complete tapestry.
With character names like Smitty, Lockeheed, and Jimmy, it is an easy matter to figure out who is the old pal, who is the hard nose, and who is the rookie cop. Dialogue is either metaphor (“You will have a front row seat at the fall of an empire. An empire of greed.”), restatement (“We got a problem.” “It’s not my problem…” “It’s everyone’s problem.”), or both (“Those tattoos … do they mean something?” “They mean everything.”). This is the type of script featuring clichéd scenes like the hero checking a dead body as cops arrive precisely at that moment to mistake him for the murderer.
A few actors, particularly Louis Mandylor as a stereotypical hot-headed police officer and writer/producer/star Frank Krueger as a fallen cop with a heart of gold, are on the verge of getting over on the green screenplay. With beefier material and a few more takes to work out the feel for it, this cast is likely capable of turning in stronger work. As it is though, most of the performances are on par with the production value of a basic cable series like “Leverage” or “Flashpoint,” but without the effects budget.
That budget is a problem when the story revolves around an underground labyrinth described as “a total maze,” yet shot as if it exists in a confined space the size of an average bedroom. Staging looks like a Scooby-Doo cartoon when characters exit their dark surroundings on the right side only to suddenly reappear on the left. Ambition further exceeds resources when a pivotal scene calls for a subway train to explode, but is conspicuously never shown.
“20 Ft. Below” just does not have what it takes to pull off what it wants. And what it wants is never clear to the viewer. Perhaps “20 Ft. Below” aimed to have something for everyone, and in so doing, it ended up with nearly nothing for anyone.
Incidentally, Danny Trejo currently has 275 acting credits to his name listed on IMDB. “20 Ft. Below” can still be part of a viewing marathon involving a different Danny Trejo movie every day for a full year. If you did the math and realized that doesn’t equal 365, don’t worry. I’m sure Danny will have another 90 ready to go by the time you get through the first 275.
NOTE: “20 Ft. Below: The Darkness Descending” was previously titled “Redemption: The Darkness Descending” and is known is the UK as "Darkness Descends."
Review Score: 45