In 2002, the world of branded content was still in its infancy. Advertisers were well aware of the power of the internet, but they didn’t quite know how to harness it. While today’s branded content is more stealthy and subtle, advertisers in the early 2000’s essentially created longer-form versions of traditional commercials. BMW was just such a company, creating a campaign comprised of a series of action-oriented short films, with the intent to show off their cars in a bombastic cinematic fashion. Naturally, Tony Scott became involved, and their collaboration resulted in “BEAT THE DEVIL”, one segment in the viral video series “THE HIRE”.
In wanting to create a big frame for a small canvas, BMW certainly didn’t skip on the details. Clive Owen stars as a driver of little words, whose character recurs throughout the various segments. BEAT THE DEVIL also stars the legendary James Brown (appearing as a highly fictionalized version of himself), who sold his soul to the Devil years ago for success and wants to strike up a new deal. Owen’s driver transports Brown to a meeting with the Devil, who turns out to be an effeminate cross-dresser (Gary Oldman), and their meeting culminates in a drag race that will settle who gets to keep Brown’s soul once and for all.
This is an incredibly strange short film. While appropriate for a commercial, Scott’s heavy stylization and overcooking of the visuals doesn’t mesh with the short film format. The result is a jumbled, incoherent mess of a narrative. Truth be told, I only know the synopsis because I had to look it up on IMDB. With his Director of Photography Paul Cameron, Scott seems to be using the format to test the limits of his aesthetic. The image has an extreme amount of contrast and saturation, as if it’s been left to cook in the desert sun for a hundred years. There’s a heavy orange tint to the colors, and Scott oftentimes rolls the exposure up and down, superimposing shots on top of each other and burning them together. He continues his affinity for extreme close-ups of lips, eyes, hands, etc., as well as the time-stamp over the black-and-white freezeframe. Camerawork is all the over place, veering from locked-off, steady shots to canted angles and rack zooms.
Scott also introduces a few new visual elements to his style, as well. He incorporates flares of light into the shot, as if light leaked into the camera during shooting and burned the film. He also incorporates sound design at an overly-dynamic level, creating sound effects for every camera movement and running the dialogue and sound effects through heavy sonic filtering. He also starts adding English subtitles on top of the visuals as a way to punctuate the dialogue and highlight important words and phrases.
There’s some interesting performances here, not all of it good. Clive Owen isn’t given much to do as the lead character. He gets to drive the BMW and make it look good, sure, but he’s more of a periphery character in the narrative. James Brown is a better actor than I imagined him to be, and his arc is a nice nod to his roots. However, he mumbles so hard that its often difficult to understand what he’s saying. Gary Oldman is by far the best performance, channeling his psycho pimp character in TRUE ROMANCE (1993) and going full-glam for his role as the effete Devil. He’s nearly unrecognizable, and bursts at the seams with energy. It’s incredibly foreign, coming from the recent memory of his performance as Commissioner Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY. Danny Trejo also appears as the Devil’s bodyguard. And in perhaps the most surprising twist, Marilyn Manson shows up in a brief, bizarre cameo that has him earnestly reading the Bible. Weird stuff.
BMW obviously hired Scott because they wanted him to bring his signature style to their project, but the end result is way too hyperactive for its own good. It’s full of interesting imagery, but narratively, it’s pure chaos. In regards to Scott’s development, it’s clear by this point that he has no intention of abandoning his newfound style– and that he plans to keep building on to it until the whole thing collapses under its own weight.
THE HIRE: BEAT THE DEVIL is currently available in its entirety on Youtube, via the embed above.