When discussing popular cinema, there's not much point spending your time bemoaning the lack of original ideas. Basically, virtually everything comes from something else and the real interest comes in seeing how one work plays variations on another. Take Tattoo for example, a well made if somewhat uninspiring serial killer 'policier'. It's highly derivative and rather predictable but it's directed with a keen eye for detail and performed with enough vigour to make it seem more interesting than it otherwise might have been.
Although I have tried to avoid too many spoilers, you may prefer to skip down to the review of the disc if you want your viewing experience to remain unsullied
The film is your basic 'buddy cop' formula crossed with a dark serial killer story. August Diehl plays, very well, Marc Schrader, a newly qualified policeman who is caught with two ecstasy tabs at an illegal all-night rave. His new boss, Chief Inspector Minks (the excellent Redl), uses this to blackmail him into joining the homicide squad, believing that Schrader's knowledge of the underbelly of youth culture will come in useful. When the body of a burnt and mutilated young woman is discovered in the wreck of a bus, Schrader's specialist knowledge becomes the vital link in investigating a crime which is soon revealed to be one of a series which seem to be linked to the victims' ownership of exotic tattoos.
Even given that everything comes from something, Tattoo is extraordinarily unoriginal. There's no doubt that it's heavily dependent on David Fincher's Seven in terms of its tone, atmosphere and cinematography. It also cribs from a variety of other serial killer flicks of the past ten years or so - notably Silence of the Lambs and Copycat - while also borrowing liberally from older sources like Manhunter and a nasty little Roald Dahl story called Skin. You could even usefully identify it as part of the Euro-Noir movement that has brought us works such as Alejandro Amenabar's seriously creepy Tesis and the very glossy The Crimson Rivers.
But in a sense, this is all taken as a given. Seven wasn't exactly original in itself but it was the product of such an uncompromising vision and was made in so extreme a style that it seemed original - and it's certainly influenced virtually every major Hollywood thriller since it was released. Tattoo uses it as a template. So much in it seems to remind you of Fincher's film. The young/old cop relationship, the cold, impersonal city where its always raining, the messages from the killer, the use of a special delivery to kick off the final moments, the downbeat ending. However, David Fincher very deliberately shied away from using blood and gore to shock - there was a rather sad, matter-of-fact quality to the violence. Robert Schwentke doesn't do this and I suspect it's because he's not got the directorial skill to be so controlled. He ladles on the blood and entrails like there's no tomorrow and seems to relish the lingering looks at charred and mangled bodies which keep being thrust upon us. It's certainly unpleasant and undeniably distasteful but it's not really shocking after a while and eventually, the nastiness seems to be included simply to ensure that the audience doesn't get bored when faced with what turns out to be a rather predictable mystery. Another departure - and regression - from Seven is the relationship between rookie cop and veteran. In Fincher's film (from Andrew Kevin Walker's superb screenplay), Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt began by treating each other suspiciously but rapidly warmed up to a mutual admiration for the other's differing skills without necessarily becoming best mates. This was done so rapidly and believably that it was a great change from the usual sparring partners to best buddies formula. In Tattoo, Redl and Diehl go from dislike to friendship in what seems like the twinkling of an eye, based on one single unselfish action on the part of the older man.
However, the relationship between the two cops does work to some extent - even if their friendship never convinces - because of the very strong performances of the actors. August Diehl is nicely ambivalent as Schrader, just reserved enough to be interesting without losing all of our sympathy. He also behaves in a believable fashion right up until the moment that he's required to shag the female lead for reasons which have more to do with giving the audience a sex scene to keep them watching than anything which might be described as vital to the narrative. This moment also demands a change in behaviour and sympathies on the part of Schrader which I didn't find remotely plausible. However, Diehl manages to bring some edges to the character which may not have been apparent on the page. Christian Redl is just as good in a slightly more complex role than I had expected. At first, Minks seems to be just your standard shouty/scary boss but Redl shades him very well by adding sideways glances and body language which indicates some kind of inner confusion. Minks has a backstory - involving the death of his wife in a hit and run incident and a runaway daughter - which does over-egg the pudding more than a little but Redl plays these so well that you believe them even while you're wondering if their inclusion has more to do with Schwentke's red herrings than adding something essential to the character. Redl's final scene is particularly impressive, if a little too reminiscent of George C. Scott in The New Centurions.
Several other characters come across nicely too, notably a breathtakingly cynical art collector played with a nice line in smug snobbery by Johan Leysen and Monica Bleibtrau as, for a change, a female police commissioner. The other women in the film don't come across quite so well. Schrader appears to have a live-in girlfriend but there's never any affection between the two of them that suggests friendship, let alone a romantic or sexual relationship. As for the female lead, a friend of one of the victims named Maya Kroner - played by the icily beautiful Nadeshda Brennicke - she's basically a plot device cribbed from a lot of other, better films. Indeed, I saw the same character last week in Taking Lives, but on that occasion it was played by a man. Brennicke looks stunning but her character never comes to life and the most animated thing about her is the extraordinary body make-up which is revealed in a rather pleasurable (if dramatically dubious) nude scene.
The mystery side of the film isn't quite as impressive as overall standard of the characterisation. The moment that an extraneous character is introduced for no good reason then it should put crime aficionados on the alert and the development of the plot - a series of misdirections on the part of the killer - is familiar from many other works. It holds the attention because it's well paced and engrossingly played but the solution is patently obvious to anyone who has been paying attention. The final scene, which follows a series of events which are horribly violent and nihilistic, goes for a tone of black comedy reminiscent of the last moments of Silence of the Lambs, but simply comes across as insensitive and cold. When a filmmaker has managed the reasonably difficult task of emotionally involve us with two central characters, he shouldn't then undercut our involvement by trying to be flip and cynical, as if what we've been watching wasn't meant to have any emotional effect on us. It just comes across as cheap.
That's not to say that the film isn't well directed. Schwentke has a lot to learn about plotting but he's got a sure eye for a dingy location. I'm sure that the Berlin tourist board won't be asking him to do any commercials for them in the near future because he makes the place look truly horrible. I also suspect that it doesn't rain quite as much in Berlin as it does in this film. He's also very good at suspense sequences which tighten the screw until you're almost too nervous to watch the screen and he paces a car pursuit and a foot chase sequence with the flair and stylish confidence of a great action director in embryo. There is, however, a little too much insistence on brutality which reminds me of the more unsubtle moments of William Friedkin; bashing you over the head with sordid realism so frequently that you begin to feel a little exhausted and slightly sick. Still, with a lot of help from Jan Fehse's remarkably atmospheric cinematography and Peter Przygodda's pacy, sometimes effectively disconcerting editing, he turns Tattoo into an entertaining thriller that is in the same league as a good episode of Cracker, even if it can't rise to the heady heights of one of Jimmy McGovern's masterpieces of crime drama such as "To Be A Somebody". Give the borrowings from other films the benefit of the doubt and I think you'll have a pretty good time.
The general improvement in Tartan's DVD product continues with Tattoo. A superb visual transfer is complemented by a stunningly effective DTS soundtrack. The only disappointment is that the audio commentary and making-of featurette from the German DVD release are absent.
The film is presented in anamorphic 2.35:1. This is an exceptionally good transfer. It's pleasingly sharp with plenty of fine detail but no unsightly edge enhancement. No problems with artifacting and the colours are strong but not over saturated. The frequent dark scenes feature deep blacks and well defined shadows. I thought this was excellent.
There are three German soundtracks on the disc, all of them excellent. The DTS 5.1 Surround track is marvellous, immersing you deeply in what's going on with a constant and rather doom-laden use of bass. Dialogue is directional and occasionally unpredictable in its placing and the ominous music score is highly atmospheric. Surrounds kick in throughout for ambient effects and this is especially effective in the club scenes and the later chase sequence. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is very similar in effectiveness although I found the DTS to be a little bit crisper and more involving. There is also a Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 track on the disc which is well balanced, making good use of both channels. Inevitably, the impact is slightly less on this track and the low end is almost non-existent but it's still highly acceptable.
The extras are slightly disappointing and are limited to an interesting but brief interview with the director and the original theatrical trailer - this gives away far too much by the way, so don't watch it until you've seen the film. We also get trailers for other Tartan DVDs namely Visitor Q, Red Siren, House of 1000 Corpses, Tesis and Dark Water. The German DVD contains a full commentary and a making-of featurette so it's a shame that Tartan haven't licensed these for the UK version.
Tattoo is far from being a great film but it's certainly diverting and offers some impressively grimy atmospherics to atone for the predictable plotting. The DVD is excellent on picture, very good on sound and only falls down in the extras department.