“Wicked Blood” is a strange film. There’s no other way to put it. It’s a standard mafia double-cross movie with a mob boss and henchmen and small-time drug trafficking and an underling that tries to get away with murder, but transposed to Louisiana—where we’re told the drug of choice is “hillbilly crack.”
And on top of this standard-issue plot we get a layer of attempted sophistication and artifice: a teenage girl who plays chess and loves the game so much that she uses it as an analogy as she navigates life in the southern sticks. We get heavy-handed close-ups of chess pieces being moved and a voice overlay that offers poetic chess analogies as a metaphor for the action.
Picture “The Sopranos” transplanted to the South, with the main point-of-view character Tony Soprano’s daughter instead of Tony himself. And picture all of the mob action happening in an area that seems so rural you’d think they’d be dealing in raccoon pelts instead of meth. Given the landscape and the reductive cast, the premise just doesn’t feel totally believable.
But you keep watching, and you do so because of the performances, starting with Abigail Breslin. The former star of “Little Miss Sunshine” really draws you into the world of Hannah Lee, who, with her sister Amber (Alex Vega), lives with hippie-crazy Uncle Donny (Lew Temple), who we see very early has a serious drug problem. There’s no overacting here, and a kind of coolness that reminds you slightly of another “Hannah.” But the stakes are much lower, and the story more compressed. Even the “heavy” is a relative. Sean Bean plays Uncle Frank, a mob boss and drug dealer who uses a strip club (more “Sopranos,” right?) as a front for his illegal activities. He’s typically no-nonsense and if you have any complaints, he has a box—not for complaints, but for complainers.
Uncle Frank also has a henchman who (since everyone is related in this movie) is a younger brother with brain damage, a psychotic named Bobby played by Jake Busey, who’s now getting roles his dad used to get.
And of course the FBI has so little to do that they’ve targeted this family operation, and an agent (Ricky Wayne) goes to Hannah and tells her that unless she cooperates she and her sister are going to end up in foster care.
The one surprising turn that “Wicked Blood” makes as it follows a conventional route comes early in the film: threatened with Foster care, Hannah decides to offer herself as a courier to Uncle Frank, saying she needs the money. Kudos to the screenwriters for the deviation, but darn it, I kept scratching my head wondering why she would do this?
If you can ignore that annoying itch, it’s pretty easy to get caught up in this film because the actors put so much into it. Vega is terrific as a small-town girl who wants out, a diner waitress who’s tired of it all. And Temple as the addict and former chess champion Donny is just as captivating. So is Bean, for that matter, and Busey. When the camera’s on them, they know what to do, and they make the best of it. James Purefoy is a little stiffer in his performance as the leader of a biker gang, but as the film progresses he seems to find his way.
“Wicked Blood” was filmed in and around Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but despite the look of authenticity you can’t help but wonder how the filmmakers got everyone in the area to leave so that only the small cast peoples this film. It’s one of the negatives that struck me time and again. And yet I kept watching.
“Wicked Blood” has a run time of 94 minutes and is not rated. It would be rated R for violence.
“Wicked Blood” is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and despite having a lower budget than many films its production values are quite good. There’s a slight layer of filmic grain, and the detail smudges slightly in low-lit scenes, but for the most part the edges are sharply defined and deep-focus shots show the kind of articulation you’ve come to expect from HD. I saw no problems with the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer.
The audio is the industry standard English DTS-HD MA 5.1, with an accomplished mix and good use of effects speakers to produce logical, directional sound. The bass has a nice presence, too, as you’ll see when there’s an explosion.
The only bonus features are separate interviews with Breslin, Bean, Purefoy, and Vega.
Despite a hackneyed plot and story elements that feel like tall tales, “Wicked Blood” holds your interest, and that’s not the result of Mark Young’s writing or direction. It’s his casting that does it, and performances that make you gulp down even the farthest-fetched elements. Without their performances, it’s as 5 out of 10. With them, it’s a 6, edging toward a 7.