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One False Move (Blu-Ray Review)

4 min read
One False Move header image

This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn't exist.

There's a certain irony to be found in reviewing a home release of One False Move, given that the film in question was originally intended for the straight-to-video wastebin. Directed by in his feature debut, at a time when Franklin was most known for his run as an actor on The A-Team, and premised on the kind of generic culture clash that bargain buckets are weighed down with—two sardonic LA cops get paired with a small town yokel police chief to solve a brutal series of drug-related murders—it's remarkable that it was successful in securing last-minute theatrical distribution. That it's also one of the finer examples of ‘90s neo-noir, lifted by its well-observed character moments and Franklin's deft touch behind the camera, is most remarkable of all.

In keeping with its almost DTV status, the film opens on a scene of domestic bliss that's ruptured by sudden violence, galling for its coarse straightforwardness. Lured into a state of false security by the arrival of their friend Lila (Cynda Williams), it's not long before everyone assembled is bound and beaten by Lila's ponytail-sporting greaseball boyfriend Ray () and their brooding spectacled accomplice, Pluto (), in the pursuit of a sizeable stash of cocaine. The deaths of those who stand between the trio and their loot are as inevitable as they are disturbing, suffocated with plastic bags and stabbed unceremoniously as a camcorder cassette of their earlier happy routine plays out on the screen behind them. Franklin never shies away from the violence, but never luxuriates in it either, crafting a series of images that are unpleasantly tactile without being robbed of their emotional impact.

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If the borderline sadism of the opening sequence suggests that the rest of the film will carry on in a similarly dour tenor, that's just the first example of how adroitly wrongfoots its audience. Once our two principal detectives, McFeely (Earl Billings) and Cole (Jim Metzler), are on the case, tracking the criminal triumvirate to Star City, Arkansas, Franklin eschews the hallmarks of gritty procedurals and gradually settles into a more mellow groove, the harsh granite lines of LA giving way to wide open expanses and the moody rasps of a harmonica. That shift in tone is epitomised in Dale “Hurricane” Dixon (Bill Paxton), a loping golden retriever of a police chief, whose enthusiasm over finally getting to join the big dogs on a gritty cross-state murder case is as charming as it is misplaced.

As we cut back and forth between the band of stick up artists on the run and the LA police doing their best fish out of water routine, it's the slowly evolving character dynamics that are most compelling, not the bloodshed. Initially, Dixon is easily read as the goof with a heart of gold; adept at defusing routine disputes between pissed drunk husbands and shrieking wives, but less useful when it comes to securing key witnesses. But not everything is as it first appears. As we peel back more of Dixon's connections to the local area—his picture perfect family and his evident rapport with the community—as well as the less savoury elements of his country bumpkin routine—specifically, a casual and unthinking racism—we start to see, once more, how initial appearances are deceiving. In an interview with Carl Franklin included on the Collection release, Billy Bob Thornton (on co-script writing duties with Tom Epperson) discusses how the original script was 200 pages; “a novel”, as he jokingly explains a producer told him. That initial script may have been pared way back, but that strange Southern gothic sensibility remains— a space where archetypes are refracted into captivating new configurations.

Franklin, for his part, brings a calm confidence to the direction, showing a subtle restraint in his framing and blocking. Rather than honing in on the grotty pulp elements—and it's easy to imagine a version of this film that plays as a more recognisably ‘90s neo-noir, all low-key lighting and long cast shadows—Franklin's eye is far cooler and clearer, letting bright blues fill the negative space. By the time we've reached the finale, a cross-cutting crescendo that somehow plays at a subtle register, the cumulative impact is quite remarkable, a film that shifts tones with all the slow shifting grace of the seasons. Needless to say, a crime thriller with a detective called Dud Cole has no rights being this sophisticated—but what a joy that it is.

Special Features

  • New 4K digital restoration, approved by director Carl Franklin, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack
  • Audio commentary from 1999 featuring Franklin
  • New conversation between Franklin and cowriter-actor Billy Bob Thornton
  • Trailer
  • English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • PLUS: An essay by author William Boyle

The Criterion Collection edition of One False Move releases in the UK on November 6.