Angolan-Portuguese director Carlos Conceição announces his arrival on the global stage with this blisteringly original, confounding film that defies categorization. Punctuated by random acts of violence that change the plot’s trajectory multiple times, the film tests patience even as it rewards adventurous viewers with its gleeful mashup of unlikely genres. While it’s difficult to recommend under any conventional definition of great cinema, it’s also so far out there that it’s an instant cult classic guaranteed to be seared in the memories of even the most forgetful viewers.
Things start innocently enough with footage of Angolan tribespeople going about their daily lives, eventually revealing primary focus on a lovely young woman who seems destined for better things. Portuguese soldiers are patrolling the area, and the natives seem to bristle at their presence, but our heroine soon encounters a stray soldier in the bush and enjoys a silent tryst. Seems straightforward enough, forbidden love in the time of social unrest, but then a violent act changes focus to the soldier before shifting again to a different group of soldiers.
This is where things start to get really weird, as the young and inexperienced soldiers seem to revere their commander as a messianic figure, even when he blows away a native friendly who soon starts haunting their camp as a zombie. Yes, at this point it’s a war drama with horror-genre trappings, but Conceição isn’t done innovating yet. To smooth things over with his rattled troops, the commander brings a world-weary hooker back to camp to break in all the boys, leading to fumbling comedy and then another surprise act of violence that shifts the entire axis of what we thought we understood about the nature of their enlistment. Also, more zombies.
The plot shifts direction so many times that it didn’t really hit its rhythm for me until its final act, a bravura bit of the soldiers breaking free from the boundaries of their perceived world. That segment seemingly shares a fitting parallel with Conceição’s own experience, an unfettered filmmaker rejecting the shackles of closed-off expectations as he strikes out in bold new directions. It’s only in those closing moments that I fully appreciated the work and got the feeling that he might be onto something here.
The film is presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio and DTS 5.1 surround, with technical proficiency exactly as expected, especially in the action-packed and expertly lensed finale. A healthy selection of bonus deleted scenes also adds texture to the work.
Tommy Guns is the kind of film that feels like it would benefit from a separate primer to explain what the hell is going on, especially since there’s precious little dialogue. Indeed, the description on the back of the Blu-ray provides valuable context, explaining that the story begins in 1974 one year before Angola’s independence from Portuguese rule, with wealthy colonists fleeing while revolutionaries claw back their ancestral lands. There’s no explanation for the supernatural elements or sex-comedy trappings, but much of the joy to be had is in trying to decipher Conceição’s inscrutable, inimitable approach to filmmaking.