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STEEL TOES (directors: David Gow/Mark Adam; screenwriter: David Gow/from the play Cherry Docs by David Gow; cinematographer: Mark Adam; editors: Mark Adam/Susan Shanks; music: Benoît Groulx; cast: David Strathairn (Danny Dunckelman), Andrew Walker (Mike Downey), Ivana Shein (Jill), Marina Orsini (Anna Dunkelman), Joel Miller (Danny’s father), Ivan Smith (Vikram), Linda Smith (Barabara); Runtime: 90; MPAA Rating: R; producer: David Gow; Monterey Media; 2006-Canada)
“Unpleasant courtroom psychological drama that is well-acted and well-meaning but fails in its attempt to be convincing in delivering its humanist message.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Unpleasant courtroom psychological drama that is well-acted and well-meaning but fails in its attempt to be convincing in delivering its humanist message, as it goes off on narrative tangents that reduce its emotional intensity and take away screen time badly needed to more fully get at what it was trying to say about defending evil as a matter of duty for all humanity. Canadian actor and playwright David Gow bases the low-budget film he codirects with Mark Adam on his play Cherry Docs (it opened in 1998 in Toronto), that was set in the 1980s after Montreal experienced a rash of skinhead hate crimes.

It opens with youthful Montreal neo-Nazi skinhead, Mike Downey (Andrew Walker), stomping to death a hardworking immigrant Indian busboy in an alleyway with his steel toed combat boots, after he was accidentally splattered with garbage tossed away while he was making out with his girlfriend Jill atop the garbage cans.

Liberal humanist Jewish lawyer Danny Dunckelman (David Strathairn, played the same part on the Philadelphia stage) is appointed by the court to provide free legal aid to Mike, and is torn over defending someone so contemptible and an enemy who would kill the lawyer on the outside only for being a Jew. In fact, Mike tells Danny: “In an ideal world, I’d have you eliminated. In this world, I need you more than anyone.”

The opposite articulate smarties are contemptuous of each other, and each gets a chance to state their philosophy of life and take a whack verbally at the other. The lawyer presses on with the case because he believes it’s the way his religious father would have wanted it, as his Torah scholar father states that justice is served when the strong defend the weak and that the aim is to start somewhere to stop the killing and hatred. Defending such a case is not well-received by Danny’s Jewish friends and it also causes a rift in his marriage, as his wife is not on the same page as he is on this one and gives him the cold shoulder.

Danny, who is somewhat self-righteous, leaves it up to his heavily tattooed hate-mongering twisted white supremacist client to come up with his own defense, even though he confessed to the crime and will only admit that he was drunk during the attack and didn’t mean to kill him but he just couldn’t stop his rage from escalating once it began.

Gow tries to establish the tension the lawyer is under to accept such a case, and how many lawyers would never take such a case. That this lawyer sees it as his sworn duty to do the best for his client so that the system works and that he uses his skills so his client gets a light sentence, might seem the right thing to do but still might not please some viewers who have more sympathy for the dead victim than this misguided fanatic and his cop-out story. It’s a provocative film that raises important questions about the court system, but it ends on a far too optimistic note to be automatically accepted. We are asked to unquestionably accept the positive change of behavior for the skinhead when the story didn’t give us enough of a chance to find that believable. Also we are asked to accept that justice was served, when it seems more likely that justice was swayed, if I may say, by a smart Jewish lawyer.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”