The director of Cub returns with his second feature film. I wish I could say I enjoyed some kind of built-up anticipation before watching it, but Jonas Govaerts' H4Z4RD came out of nowhere for me. It's been a while since Cub was released and though Govaerts has remained pretty active in the meantime, he moved his primary focus to series and music videos. Last week I caught a tidbit about an exclusive preview screening on Tomorrowland, this week I figured it would be the perfect excuse for an easy escape from the heat. I had no clue what to expect (apart from it being promoted as an action/comedy), which made the surprise all the more fun.
The number of comparisons to other films and directors gracing reviews of H4Z4RD have been so plentiful and varied that it isn't very useful to cite or make sense of all of them. Is this Antwerp's Trainspotting, a Belgian attempt at doing Tarantino, a Coen derivative, a localized Dick Maas film, or a fresh take on the Fast & Furious franchise? It's probably none and all of those things. I was mostly reminded of films like U-Turn and Very Bad Things, juicy dark comedies describing a day that gets progressively worse. But whatever it reminds you of, it's really like nothing you've seen before, even though it has these moments and elements that may feel pretty familiar.
What surprised me the most is that I completely failed to notice the concept/setup of H4Z4RD. It is sold as a film that is shot entirely from within a single car, but there is so much happening and situations get so very frantic and absurd that I had to think back when I read about it afterward. Govaerts does a tremendous job covering up for the fact that his camera never leaves the protagonist's car, which is just more proof that restraint and limitations can often drive creativity and originality when talent is involved. It certainly gives me a good reason to rewatch the film the next chance I get.
The plot follows Noah, a skilled but disillusioned driver who isn't doing much with his life. He has a girlfriend and a daughter, but no money to give them the life they deserve. Noah gambles and takes on smaller jobs to fund his addiction. When his cousin Carlos contacts him after just being released from jail, Noah knows better than to hook up with him, but he still owes Carlos from before. What is supposed to be a simple driver assignment turns into a ride from hell, as people start dying, the police are on his tail and his daughter becomes the victim of a bust gone bad.
H4Z4RD is not the first film with a camera locked inside a car (Locke is another recent one), but it is the one that does its darnedest best to make you forget. Creative angles, some clever use of car tech (the parking camera for example), flashy editing, excellent use of outside settings to change up color schemes and even a dash of animation all add to the dynamic visuals, even though the lens is constrained to a space smaller than 10m³. It's always cool to see a director use restraint to challenge himself, H4Z4RD once again shows these are the type of films I truly crave.
The soundtrack is right up there with the visuals, though it is certain to divide the room. It is quintessential 90s (hard) trance mixed with some Eurohouse, music scenes that were booming in Belgium 30 years ago (Bonzai represent) and which fit the characters to a T. Too many directors are still scared to add a little thump to their soundtracks, I'm glad Govaerts didn't feel the need to blunt the impact of the music (too much). Instead, thanks to some crafty editing and slick sound design, the music actually adds to the overall impact. It's a nice mix of hits and cult favorites (Dave Davis & Krid Snero among others), so kudos for taking a chance.
Another selling point for H4Z4RD is the casting of Dimitri 'Vegas' Thivaios. I don't care for his music and I honestly didn't expect too much from him here, but he's very solid. His part isn't too challenging, yet for a first-time effort, his performance is very much on point. Thivaios' more subdued acting style is a perfect counterpoint to the growing chaos around him. Embodying that chaos best is Jeroen Perceval, who is simply indescribable. He's a cliché of a cliché, but his expressions and remarks are so unfathomably blunt and idiotic that it was impossible not to burst out in laughter whenever he appeared on the screen. The rest of the cast is great too (with a smaller but extravagant role for Frank Lammers and an unforgettable cameo of Tom Vermeir).
If Cub was an exercise in strict genre filmmaking, H4Z4RD is a celebration of the freedom and lawlessness of genre cinema. It's a film that comes off as a passion project between friends who simply wanted to have a bit of fun. They just happened to be some very talented people. With guys like Stef Lernous (of Hotel Poseidon fame) helping out with the script, Tim Mielants (director of De Patrick) on board in a smaller cameo and Jeroen Perceval giving it his all in a truly demented role, it somehow feels the Belgian genre scene is more alive than ever. The first 10 minutes are relatively tame, but once the ball gets rolling, the film accelerates head-first into an explosive finale.
The comedy might not travel well, the soundtrack is sure to put off more traditional film fans and the absurdist touches will confuse more commercially-minded audiences. That is not to say H4Z4RD is a very complex or highbrow film (on the contrary), it's just a bit niche and unusual, despite many familiar elements. Govaerts crafted a near-perfect piece of entertainment that gets progressively better as time passes, without ever losing sight of the cinematic craft and creativity that blesses the best of genre films. The film is an absolute delight and another confirmation that Belgian genre cinema can deliver the goods. Watch this if you get the chance.