Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 March 2005
Issue No. 734
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Action-hero dynasties

Mohamed El-Assyouti celebrates the lineage of a recent box-office hit

Hassan Abu Ali is poor, his little brother needs expensive heart surgery -- he steals an ancient Egyptian statuette from a gang of smugglers. On the run, Abu Ali encounters Said El-Iraqi, a corrupt police officer. Having recklessly killed a soldier and injured another while chasing the thief, El- Iraqi contrives to frame Abu-Ali for the murder.

So goes the story of Abu Ali, the highest grossing film released last Eid -- over LE11 million so far. In this double-chase action flick, directed by Ahmed Galal and scripted by Bilal Fadl, the hero needs to escape from both the gang and the police; he also needs to prove his innocence. The combination is in effect a variation on the film noir formula that informs hundreds of American films, reaching a rare maturity in Quentin Tarantino's debut script True Romance (1991), directed by Tony Scott. The same formula has found expression in a range of Egyptian offerings from Kamal El-Sheikh's version of Naguib Mahfouz's Al-Lis Wal Kilab (The Thief and the Dogs) -- the story of an unjustly persecuted protagonist confronting a corrupt social-political order that turns even his best friends into enemies, it spawned both Ashraf Fahmi's Leil Wa Khawana (Night and Traitors) and Atef El-Tayeb's Al- Horoub (The Escape) -- to early 1980s Adel Imam vehicles like Samir Seif's Al-Masbouh (The Suspect, 1981) and Mohamed Fadel's Hobb fil Zinzana (Love in the Prison Cell, 1982); almost invariably, in the Egyptian variant of the formula, a victimised woman -- whether the prostitute in Al-Lis Wal Kilab and Al-Mashbouh or innocent prisoner in Hobb fil Zinzana (played by actress Soad Hosni in both of the latter films) -- provides the romantic interest, contributing to a well-rounded story.

In Abu Ali, the prostitute friend is played by Intisar, type-cast in the role since her performance in Hani Khalifa's Sahar Al-Layali (Nights Vigil, 2003), for which she received two awards; she had played the same role in her debut, Raafat El-Mihi's Tufaha (Apple), as well. The film provides for a wife-to-be, besides, played by Mona Zaki, similarly typecast -- as the innocent girl -- since Saedi fil Gamaa Al-Amrikiya (An Upper Egyptian at the American University, 1997). For his part Karim Abdel-Aziz as Abu Ali is but a slight variation on the theme of the thief as he performed it in the two Sandra Nashaat comedies, Haramiya fi KG2 (Thieves in Kindergarten, 2001) and Haramiya fi Thailand (Thieves in Thailand, 2002). Yet however stereotyped and repetitive, with improvisational chaos infesting most mainstream productions, the relatively controlled performances of this trio turns out to be refreshing. With Khaled El-Sawi and Ahmed Foud Selim cast in the roles of the bad and the good cops, respectively -- their disharmonious acting techniques notwithstanding -- counters the mainstream tendency to rely on the same handful of names to fill in the secondary gaps. Ihab Mohamed Ali's cinematography, too, evokes the mellow, sober and light moods of the dramatic developments with surprising success -- another plus point.

Karim Abdel-Aziz hails from a family that has worked in the business for decades. His father, Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, is a prolific comedy director whose filmography includes some 20 films starring Adel Imam. His uncle, Omar Abdel-Aziz, is another director who specialises in comedy; his latest film was released last month. Karim's earliest appearance was as Adel Imam's six-year-old son in Al-Mashbouh, and his debut in new-wave comedies was as a sidekick to the late Alaa Walieddin in Abboud Ala Al-Hudoud (Abboud on the Frontier, 1998). Yet Karim is not the only participant in this film to have such a celebrated lineage. Abu Ali is Ahmed Galal's second film as a director; and it demonstrates that he too is worthy of the legacy of his family. His father is director Nader Galal, his grandfather director Ahmed Galal, his grandmother the famous actress-producer Marie Queeni (the niece of actress-producer Asia, who produced Youssef Chahine's landmark historical epic, Al- Nasser Salaheddin.)

This family has in fact proved remarkably prolific, making regular contributions to the mainstream film business regardless of the predominant circumstances. Nader Galal, for example, having directed films with Mahmoud Yassin and Hussein Fahmi in the 1970s as well as Adel Imam and Nadia El-Guindi vehicles in the 1980s, has tried his hand at soap operas in recent years. And like father like son having directed the Hani Ramzi vehicle Aiz Haqi (I Want My Right) last year, Ahmed Galal now makes a success of this Karim Abdel-Aziz vehicle; both his catholic approach and the modus operandi whereby he manages to guide performances and control indoor scenes while producing very poorly executed chases and action sequences, are traits he seems to have inherited from his father. Since the 1940s, wherever cameras have rolled in the name of entertainment, filmmakers were desperately attempting to imitate Hollywood; Egypt is no exception. Nor is the result of the process any less disappointing in Egyptian films, especially when it comes to action. The fights in Youssef Chahine's Bab Al-Hadid (Cairo Central Station) may be among the most obvious examples of such failure.

Since then, tough-guy parts have been written especially for Farid Shawqi and Rushdi Abaza, then Nour El-Sherif, Adel Imam and Ahmed Zaki -- and now Ahmed El-Saqqa. There emerged, in this context, the kind of Hollywood-aping action genre, practised by variously competent directors -- the consistent sloppiness of Niazi Mustafa and Hossameddin Mustafa standing side by side with the successful compromises reached by Salah Abu Seif and Hassan El-Imam; the run-of- the-mill work of Nader Galal and Mohamed Abdel-Aziz balanced against the good if not quite successful attempts made by Samir Seif. Today, directors like Tareq El-Erian, Sherif Arafa and Ali Idriss routinely rely on foreign stunt crews, mostly South African, in order to produce action sequences of barely acceptable quality. The only plus point to be cited in Galal junior's favour is that he has maintained the legacy of his forebears, relying solely on local resources. And notwithstanding the inclusion of vistas from the Dakhla Oasis and the banks of the Nile in Cairo to give the film a new look, the redundancy of plot and characterisation, which acts to reinforce stereotypes and perpetuate the social status quo -- value judgments defining "the good boy" and "the good girl", for instance -- combine with sloppy action sequences to place this film in among hundreds of equally forgettable offerings.

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