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Long before anyone besides Sony execs ever saw a print of Gabriel, the film was...
Long before anyone besides Sony execs ever saw a print of Gabriel, the film was fully consecrated for its intriguing conceptual base, cut-rate funding and all-around innovation on the part of director/producer/co-writer Shane Abbess. While it can hardly be expected to stand up to such hype and scrutiny, the presence of intriguing production elements and narrative devices means that its presence may still be felt long after its cinematic close.
Gabriel is about a climatic battle between the forces of The Fallen (they're the baddies, and you can tell because they run brothels and sell drugs) and the last remaining Archangel of The Light - Gabriel (newcomer Andy Whitfield). The hero is a hero because he can heal people, has bright blue eyes and is basically a top bloke. He's fighting for the rights to the souls of the rather unimaginatively named Purgatory, a crappy city full of violence and pain. Purgatory is, of course, Sydney, but to its credit, Gabriel legitimately feels like it's been shot at least in another country, if not another planet entirely.
The digital video recording (captured with a brand new JVC HD101) provides hyper-real edges to the film's post-apocalyptic landscapes, and the constructed and/or found locations have a similar surreal spin. Purgatory's back alleys are smoky and rotten, but with a palpable gleam of peculiarity that sets them apart from similar, familiar scenes in similar, familiar movies. It's hard to say if Gabriel looks different because of the new fangled technology used, or if the visual crew has made a major leap forward in the construction of an alien landscape; either way, it works, and sets this film apart from its lesser ilk.
Effectively, the filmmakers have also doctored their actors' eyes, with Dwaine Stevenson's big bad guy Sammael given creepy white corneas (which creates a permanent pop-eyed expression) and Gabriel's eyes fluctuating between a too-bright blue and more normal colour over the course of the film. This, in part, allows the characters to further distance themselves from normalcy, imbuing the film with a respectable "otherness" of a type usually reserved for such impressive digital showmanship as demonstrated by the likes of Robert Rodriguez (Sin City) or Zack Snyder (300).
Most importantly, however, Gabriel isn't schlock. Given its rudimentary and rather unexplored central premise, and its reliance on visual elements like "bullet time" and its cast of virtual unknowns, it could easily have traipsed into the land of direct-to-DVD action flicks. Indeed, it comes close at times, but is actually far removed from that sort of rot, although Abbess and co-writer Matt Hylton Todd have hardly constructed an intellectually stimulating reality. Rather, it's a watertight story arc with a written-in-stone philosophy underpinned by a beguiling lack of pretension. Gabriel may be derivative, but it never thinks that it's smarter than it is, with both cuteness and cleverness left firmly at the door. Its lack of self-delusion forecasts an innocence that seems to fly in the face of the violent sexualisation that it preaches otherwise, but it does explain its virtually non-existent sense of humour.
The film's tone is fully indebted to Whitfield, whose cipher-hero is probably most comparable to Keanu Reeves' Neo from the Matrix trilogy: not only does this film share that one's penchant for visual chicanery over character investment, but it also shares a blank-faced and blank-minded everyman. The film opens with Gabriel falling onto the desiccated plains of Purgatory, where he proceeds to spend most of the title sequence learning how to walk and talk (which he does, curiously, with an almost Eastern European accent that rather contrasts the rest of the cast's faux-American speech patterns) and demonstrating a steadfast resistance to learning anything further over the course of the film. He is infantilised-man, dedicated to the destruction of evil (with a spot of copulation thrown in for good measure), and has little need for philosophical pronouncements or intellectual depth. This is a good thing, as he follows in the well-trod footsteps of many an action hero: he may be thoroughly unimaginative, but he's not boring. In fact, once the arse-kicking gets underway, he faithfully absorbs and reflects the spinning, divergent philosophies appropriated by his scriptwriters, without ever seeming to digest. His co-stars follow suit, as Stevenson's baddy - while happy to spout twaddle on any occasion - is similarly without unnecessary texture, and his queen Lilith (played with aplomb by statuesque model/actress Erika Heynatz) also gets into the one-dimensional game. Everyone is more than happy to let the film's style do the talking, which is how it gets away with such a troublesome grounding.
Ultimately, Gabriel is too long (at just shy of two hours), and becomes boorish in its action-packed third act. Whitfield devolves into an invincible killing machine (despite his previously well-elucidated mortality) who can dodge bullets, take a pole through the chest and keep fighting. Meanwhile, Stevenson - formerly a bad arse - becomes an annoying whiner before undergoing a less than credible twist (which is as obvious as it is unlikely). Still, there's a lot to recommend in Gabriel, and there is no reason why it shouldn't become a hit and a consummate pan-Pacific export film.