Racial tension in Sydney is explored in the at times brilliant The Combination Redemption

The Combination Redemption is a crime drama based in Sydney’s western suburbs, about a boxing trainer (George Basha) facing an all-in brawl to survive. When it focuses on human drama it is brilliant, writes critic Blake Howard. 

In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald to coincide with the 2009 release of The Combination, writer and star George Basha said “Baz Luhrmann made Australia. And good on him. But this is Australia through my eyes.” Basha and director David Field return to Sydney’s western suburbs for another helping of Australian immigrant experience, and for better and worse – in life and film – it tastes familiar.

The Combination Redemption is set six years after the events of The Combination. John (Basha) remains haunted by his brother’s death and finds solace working alongside indigenous trainer Wes (Tony Ryan), in his modest fight gym. When the gym attracts the attention of an emboldened white supremacist sect lead by Bryan (Taylor Wiese) and instinctively protects a defector, Mo (Rahel Romahn) from flamboyant drug kingpin Nas (Johnny Nasser), John faces an all-in brawl to survive.

When Redemption focuses on the human drama surrounding its characters, it’s utterly brilliant. Romahn’s Mo is his family’s disappointment and makes you feel nothing but disdain. He’s an expression of resentment, reacting to his parents’ sacrifice with dismissal and hostility. Wiese typifies the disillusioned and simply defective elements of neo-Nazi Australia enamoured with conflicting nationalistic catch cries. Bryan’s adorned in Nazi gear, spouting American Marine Corps chants and being whipped into a frenzy by political leaders who then immediately wash their hands of ensuing violence.

Basha’s portrayal of John, literally and figuratively running from his past, is heightened in Field’s crafting of the performance. Field and Basha construct John with a metronomic rhythm part of the fabric of the character. Abbey Aziz plays Amira a counsellor who begins a relationship with John. Aziz’s terrific portrayal of a woman contending with her family’s expectations is disrupted in moments she’s shackled to the love interest and damsel.

Field, one of the most accomplished and talented character actors working in Australia, is a phenomenal talent behind the lens. Field and cinematographer Robert C. Morton shoot the suburbs low and wide to give the effect of dragging your nose through a lower tier of the community. Basha’s writing relies on layering theme through acting personnel. Ryan’s Wes doesn’t only deliver a lesson to John about composure in the face of racial threats; the lines on his face and his monk-like calm speak volumes.

Unfortunately, the entire film suffers almost every element surrounding psychopathic, flirtatious, phallic pistol wielding Nas. He’s so loud and blatant, in construct and performance, that his criminal conduct feels like a conjoined plot line from a B grade action movie. The lack of authority has an immediate effect. Although, it’s clearly part of The Combination series’ theme. Without spoiling specifics, there’s a very confronting and violent double murder of two innocent people in the film. In Australia, that kind of suspected gun violence would attract a tidal wave of police and media attention and activity. And engaging with the media’s role in perceptions of crime in this country would have made for very interesting viewing indeed.

The Combination Redemption continues in the tradition of its predecessor and prestige TV like East West 101, provoking the audience with disenfranchised second generation hostility, honest portrayals of ongoing racial tension and Field’s texture of decaying suburbia. Even if The Combination Redemption’s criminal antagonists, who would be better suited to a sequel to The Last Boy Scout, would make a lesser film untenable.