As anybody with a cursory knowledge of cinema knows, there are many different types of ‘bad’ film. There are noble failures, big-budget studio stinkers, comedies that aren’t funny, thrillers that aren’t thrilling, and films so smug and wide of the mark that they make you want to pick up the nearest blunt instrument and embark on a merciless killing rampage. Every once in a while, however, there comes a film so fundamentally awful, so brain-scramblingly inept in every department that you really need to ensure you’ve watched with it at least one other person to prove you haven’t gone insane and simply made it all up. Double X: The Name of the Game, starring cuddly (and sadly late) comedian Norman Wisdom (yep Granddad, that’s NORMAN WISDOM) as a leathery career criminal, is such a film. From the unwieldy title, through the 95-odd minutes of its running time, to the lonely process of taking stock of what you’ve witnessed, it takes some believing. And boy, does it take some watching.
In Double X, Wisdom portrays Arthur Clutten, an elderly safecracker in a ruthless crime syndicate presided over by slick businessman/gangster Edward Ross (Simon Ward). Clutten decides to quit the game when he sees vicious enforcer Ignatius ‘Iggy’ Smith (Bernard Hill) dispensing with one unlucky victim in too gratuitous a fashion. As a negotiating tool for his long-term safety, Clutten purloins crucial documents from the gang’s HQ that, if exposed, would incriminate Ross. Clutten’s plan goes awry when the gang kidnap his daughter (Chloe Annett) and offer her in return for the documents. Confusing, if not completely scuppering what sounds like a relatively straightforward noir-inflected plot is the presence of a totally ridiculous character: a retired Chicago cop Michael Cooper (William Katt) shored up in the Scottish Highlands who, unfortunately, happens to be the lead.
Double X: The Name of the Game gets off to a terrible start, and never recovers. The credit sequence, with its Pino Palladino-lite bendy bass score and electric blue porn-style typography puts you in mind of Babestation, and is followed by one of the longest, most inane voiceovers (a classic telltale sign of lazy storytelling) of all-time, delivered by a half-asleep Katt. Cooper and Clutten strike up a tentative friendship, and Cooper is all set to be the leading man, our navigatory anti-hero. However, one rude edit later, he completely disappears and we are plunged into a flashback that takes up almost two-thirds of the film. In any film with its head on the right way round, Clutten would have been no more than a supporting character, but for whatever reason (the editor went on holiday, the editor went missing, Norman Wisdom edited the film himself, there was no editor), he takes centre stage. So when, after what seems like an eternity, Clutten is violently dispatched, you wonder if that’s really it for him because so much time has been invested in his story. Well, it is, and believe me, no matter how well prepared you think you are, you will be shocked when Norman Pitkin gets a cap popped in the back of his head. Following Clutten’s demise, Cooper becomes the main man, far too late in the day for anyone to care, and writer-director Grewal crowbars in enough plot in the last half-hour to fill up three (bad) films. Alas, the ridiculousness doesn’t end there. Underpinning proceedings is an entirely fictionalized gang war between the North and West of London v. the South and East. Remember those heady clashes between Croydon and Cockfosters that encapsulated the dark days of Major’s Britain? No, neither do I.
The acting is mostly somnambulant. Katt’s desultory turn (he constantly appears to be looking just past the camera for an exit) makes you wonder how many actors turned down the part before he landed it. His wooden-ness, flowing blond locks and propensity for hanging around in areas of natural beauty immediately put me in mind of Ryan O’Neal’s legendarily poor showing in Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance (see here for the worst line reading of all time), and he seems to visibly lose interest in the film as time progresses. Bernard “Yosser Hughes” Hill’s outrageous performance as ‘Iggy’ is perhaps the film’s worst. Free of his trademark moustache, Hill appears to be suffering from some kind of micro-Samson syndrome, his ability to deliver a single line with conviction seemingly bound up in the erstwhile whiskers of his top lip. His overcooked Oirish accent (“OI HATE PEOPLE LOYIN’ TO MOI!”) fatally undercuts any attempt at genuine menace, and just in case his dastardly antics didn’t tip us off that was a wrong’un, he’s also sporting an extravagant limp ‘n’ cane combo. In his first appearance, he’s seen torturing a hapless, shirtless crim, suggesting evil homosexual undertones. I’m sure director Grewal was aiming for a Blue Velvet-style peek at a depraved criminal underworld. Unfortunately, it all comes across the like the (rarely visited) Playbus S&M stop. Chloe Annett, later to make Red Dwarf fanboys erupt, (first with fury at the idea a girl crashing the sci-fi boys club, and then presumably with something else when they saw her in a catsuit) does what she can with a role that requires her to be tied up, look a bit sexy, and keep a straight face when confronted with some of the worst dialogue ever committed to celluloid. Perhaps surprisingly, it is the miscast Wisdom who fares best, imbuing one or two scenes with his daughter with a necessary touch of pathos.
On an artistic level, this film has absolutely nothing to recommend it. It is leadenly paced, disgracefully acted, erratically and confusingly edited, and despite containing one or two eye-wateringly, unintentionally hilarious scenes (the alarming moment when our jaded anti-hero shoots a naked man in the balls for no reason is literally one of the funniest things I have ever seen), Double X is generally too boring to recommend as a “so bad it’s good” style must-see. Says producer Noel Cronin in the cheerful DVD liner notes: “[the low budget] was a mixed blessing: good in that the film looked a lot better than the money allowed, but bad in the sense that the critics believed the film had been made on a far bigger budget … and reviewed it accordingly”. Cronin comes across as a likeable, enthusiastic guy, but the fact is Double X’s myriad problems can’t be attributed to its low budget. All the money in the world wasn’t going to get dialogue like – “I shot him in the back of the head” … “That sounds painful”, or, “…remember when I asked you for that steak and a Bible?” – to fly. Add in the poor performances and deep-rooted structural problems and you have a recipe for disaster. By way of comparison, Christopher Nolan’s still criminally underseen debut Following managed to convince as a taut, compelling thriller on a budget of around £4000.
There’s a superb sketch from Lee and Herring’s 90s TV showThis Morning With Richard not Judy, in which ‘Lazy Journalist Scum’ are castigated for the crime of using the uninspired formula of “x” (famous person) is like “y” (other famous person) on “z” (a particular type of drug)” to describe something. They use the example of sweat-ridden rubberface Lee Evans being “like Norman Wisdom … on acid!”, and illustrate this by staging a reconstruction portraying what Norman Wisdom would really be like… on acid. It’s funny, but it portrays a Norman Wisdom as confused and unsettled as I was trying to watch Double X. Were I one of those lazy journalists, I might be tempted describe Double X: The Name of the Game as a poor man’s Raymond Chandler on a lethal cocktail of crack and Diamond White. In lieu of no Double X trailer lurking about on YouTube, it seems rather apt to conclude with the aforementioned clip from TMWRNJ. Enjoy: