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Review: Stylish 'True History of the Kelly Gang' a madly entertaining romp

Courtesy of IFC Films


An iconic Australian legend is given the big screen treatment in the vivid and gritty “True History of the Kelly Gang,” Justin Kurzel’s stylish take on the 2001 novel by Peter Carey. A film that’s grounded in its own history and isn’t afraid to take a couple mad swings. “Kelly Gang” is filled with a band of maniacal hoodlums who go around terrorizing and slaughtering their enemies and offers a wealth of slick performances from a cast headed by George MacKay (“1917”) and an unrecognizable Russell Crowe whose having the most fun in years in his brief supporting turn.

At its core, “True History” is an Australian gothic, meticulously executed for one giant and epic sweep of history anchored by MacKay while also showcasing terrific work from Essie Davis, Kurzel’s wife, and this time, she’s holding her ground and fighting back, unlike her previous film, “The Babadook.”

Taking place in the late 19th century, Ned Kelly (MacKay) stands at the center of “Kelly Gang” whose legacy in Australian culture leaves a vast footprint: inspiring many depictions in literature, fine arts, movies, and video games. He could be described as the anti-Robin Hood, and in Kurzel’s grasp, the historical figure gets a firm and welcome reinvention.

First, however, we join Kelly as an earnest little boy (Orlando Schwerdt) trying to become the man of the house, as his father can’t be counted on for anything. Soon, the film will unravel the mystery of how this seemingly innocent and hardworking youngster evolved into robber, raider, and cop killer. A transformation that hits its apex in his adult years when MacKay - fully ripped - is ready to lead his Irish brethren to overthrow their English leaders.

Kelly and his legion of miscreants charge into battles sporting women’s dresses looking for a bloody firefight. They’re trying to represent a new culture in Australia: self sufficiency and an underlying hatred of their colonialist oppressors. It’s here where Kurzel amps up the volume, and shoots this thing like a retro-pop music video that never lets up, giving the movie a striking visual aesthetic missing in his recent misfire “Assassin’s Creed.”

At the same time, “Kelly Gang” takes upon itself an episodic and poetic structure that stretches its lengths to over the two hour mark. We watch Ned become this leader, yet he grows more tiresome the more his antics are questioned and starts a turf war with a slimy constable (Nicholas Hoult) who screws Ned’s family and eventually sends his mother to prison, setting the stage for lawless outlaws to run amuck and wreak havoc while shouting many four letter words. This mine as well be Fight Club,” except it takes place in 1877.

The film is at its peak during an intense standoff at the finale in which Ned, sporting a hand-made Iron-Man like bulletproof getup, goes toe-to-toe with an army of local police officers, resulting in an assault on the mind and senses as Kurzel cranks up the light and sound effects that unfurls during the center of the action.

But, as the opening title card would suggest, “True History of the Kelly Gang” isn’t exactly a ‘true’ recount of Ned Kelly as the film is prominently told from his diary entries logged during his tenure. Still, Kurzel has assembled a crack team - including another solid supporting turn from Charlie Hunam - to help blur the line between reality and fiction. Does it really matter if some of this isn’t true when reminiscing about a legend? Whether seen as a hero or villain, Ned Kelly wrote his own story, and Kurzel was kind enough to take us on the ride. And what a wild and insane ride it is.

Grade: B+

True History of the Kelly Gang will be available to rent on-demand/digitally starting Friday April 27th.

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