out of Five
Running time: 91
John Landis struggles to recapture the magic that made his earlier films such stand-outs with this black comedy that is competently made but lacks any real spark.
What's it all about?
The story of William Burke and William Hare has passed into folklore with their exploits gaining notoriety and proving to be just as alluring now as they were in the early 19th century. Here the pair are played by Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis, who portray the two Irish con-men fast running out of money and ideas in the squalor of a bustling city famed for it's excellence in medical science. When the ambitious and forward thinking Dr. Knox (Tom Wilkinson) offers to pay good money for cadavers (no questions asked) as part of his fierce battle with a rival doctor for fame, Burke and Hare’s notoriously sinister plans are instigated.
Burke (Pegg) is the most reluctant of the pair to commit murder, but soon his desire for money makes him a willing participant. Hare (Serkis) has a wife to support so his motivation is clear from the start, however it takes attractive-but-needy-actress Ginny (Isla Fisher) to fire up Burke. Things are going well for the pair until the over-eager Captain of the Militia, McLintock (Ronnie Corbett) starts snooping around trying to get to the bottom of the mysterious disappearances occurring around the city.
The pairing of Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis works from the start. They are hampered by the accents they try to deliver, but the chemistry between them does have some appeal. The supporting cast, whilst not having much to do, is also entertaining. The real surprise is Ronnie Corbett whose Napoleon-influenced McLintock is a lively and engaging firecracker of a character. He lights up the screen and the trademark Corbett comic timing is allowed to flourish in some fantastic moments.
The film can also boast high production values. It captures the grubby atmosphere from the period wonderfully and provides a great background for the main characters to play in.
The plot tries hard to deliver laughs but when it fails, it fails in spectacular fashion. The performances are fine but the erroneous accents continue to prove distracting. Moreover when Pegg is left to his own devices or asked to bring the impromptu romance with Isla Fisher to life, the film screeches to a halt. Despite the true-life story behind the plot, the whole relationship still feels completely unbelievable.
John Landis clearly knows how to create the right tone and manages to develop the right atmosphere in visual terms, but the plot demands more, which is sadly lacking. There is also a sense that the actors had more fun in making the film than we get from watching it, which is always a problem for the viewer.
In many ways it's a shame to tar Landis’ An American Werewolf in London with the same brush as this heavy-handed and predictably forgettable black comedy. High production values and a plethora of cameos in Burke and Hare simply can't make up for a weak script of this magnitude.