Confession: Classifying FOR QUEEN & COUNTRY as an action film is a bit of a stretch. Yeah, it stars Denzel Washington (RICOCHET, THE EQUALIZER, THE EQUALIZER 2) as an ex-paratrooper, and he gets in some fights and there’s an explosion and some people get shot and there’s crime and the score is by Michael Kamen (DIE HARD). It’s much more of a drama that includes these elements of action and crime movies, though, than it is an action or crime movie.
But look, he has a gun on the poster. I thought it was gonna fit into this series more than it does. Let’s not worry about it.
Washington plays Reuben James, who joins the army to move beyond an aimless life as a soccer hooligan – that’s right, he’s English in this one! – then saw some shit and earned some medals as a gunner in the Falklands. Back in the old neighborhood he tries to get a job and politely decline criminal activities with old acquaintances including high roller Colin (Bruce Payne, HIGHLANDER: ENDGAME), who claims to have a legitimate offer for him, but… come on. And the people with real jobs are indifferent to him, nobody cares that he’s a veteran, racist cops harass him and call him slurs, etc.
He reunites with a war buddy named Fish (Dorian Healy, YOUNG SOUL REBELS). Fish wears a prosthetic leg, sometimes uses a wheelchair, drinks like the animal he’s named for, is excited to see his old friend, and makes him uncomfortable by being an asshole to his wife (or girlfriend?) Debbie (Stella Gonet, The House of Eliott) in the middle of welcoming him. Fish is a total fuckup who’s always owing money, cheating on Debbie, in bed with a girlfriend when Debbie goes into labor. But, partly through Reuben’s compassion for his friend, I found more sympathy for him than expected. I like the part where the two of them get kicked out of the pub and even though Fish is the one who accidentally knocks over a table he’s also the one that’s very apologetic to the bartender.
One day Reuben comes home to two kids breaking into his apartment. He catches one and tracks down the home of the other, Haley (Lisa O’Connor), barging in past her mother, Stacey (Amanda Redman, SEXY BEAST), who he’ll later run into at a party and start dating. And it’s kind of sweet when he becomes mom’s cool boyfriend to the girl who robbed him. But first I want to mention her room, which is furnished with A-Team bedding!
I guess I failed to get another screengrab, but it pans over and gives a better look at the TERMINATOR one sheet and Transformers wallpaper on the left there. Whether or not this movie qualifies as ’80s action, we at least know there’s one character in it who appreciates Arnold.
It’s all a slow burn of Reuben’s various problems coming to a head – not being able to get a job, losing his citizenship due to a law change, getting in trouble after he finally gives in and does one lousy security job for Colin. It’s sweet when he’s courting Stacey, and worrisome when he breaks the law, because it’s been established how much she’s against that. Their biggest fight happens when everything is going great on a date to the carnival, then he tries to win Haley a Walkman at a shooting game, and seeing how good he is at it makes her upset. Turns out her ex was a criminal who hid a shotgun under Haley’s mattress and she wants nothing to do with “men and their guns.”
That’s one thing that’s very not-American about this one – whenever someone has a gun, a big deal is made about it. It’s always treated as a dangerous thing to have around, to always be wary of. You know, like a gun. Weird. It does a really good job of building to the moment when he has finally given up on life treating him fairly and is going to go do a job for Colin, and then Stacey comes to check on him and she hugs him and feels a gun tucked into his waistband and is crushed.
It’s a very similar story to this great little Ghostface Killah song, come to think of it:
I guess this was the period when Denzel decided to try accents. He did CRY FREEDOM, then this, then THE MIGHTY QUINN. Now that we’re so used to him mostly playing variations on the same character it’s weird to hear that coming out of him. But I got used to it pretty quick. Of course there are still all the Denzelisms. I like this move when Colin, who has been pretending to be on the level, finally says “I have a proposition for you.” Reuben laughs and looks away, shakes his head in such a way that he does a complete 360 and looks back at him over his other shoulder and gives him an exaggerated “Bruce Payne, you hustlin son of a gun,” type of smile.
I mean, after that move obviously he was gonna get an Oscar eventually. I’m not joking. How many actors would come up with that? It’s next level.
As Reuben’s problems boil over, so does the neighborhood, as the fed up locals decide to fight back at the cops. One of the extras in the movie was Stephen Lawrence, a teenager who was stabbed to death in a hate crime two years later. The killers weren’t convicted until 2012, and the poor handling of the case led to attempts to reform the racism and corruption in the police force. Which is a weird way of proving that the movie knew what it was talking about.
Director Martin Stellman (writer of QUADROPHENIA) is credited as writer along with Trix Worrell, the creator of the TV show Desmond’s, who, like Reuben, came to England from St. Lucia as a child. Here in the U.S., FOR QUEEN & COUNTRY was only released on 33 screens, not making much of a splash in the shadow of other May 19th releases ROAD HOUSE, HOW I GOT INTO COLLEGE, FRIGHT NIGHT PART II and MIRACLE MILE. Although it’s not the early Denzel action vehicle I was hoping it might kinda be – there are really only a couple scuffles – it’s a compelling drama about the frustrations of the Thatcher years, and the type of shit immigrants, veterans and the working class tend to get slung at them to this day.
I don’t think FOR QUEEN & COUNTRY made much of an impression, especially in the U.S. But that same year Washington did GLORY, which he won his first Oscar for, and in ’90 he did MO’ BETTER BLUES, beginning a long, fruitful collaboration with Spike Lee. And much later he’d do a few action movies, equalizing people and what not.