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DAVID BOWIE CO-STARS IN 'MERRY CHRISTMAS MR. LAWRENCE'

year: 1983 starring: David Bowie, Tom Conti, Ryûichi Sakamoto
It's intriguing to imagine what, say, an eighty-year-old man stumbling across MERRY CHRISTMAS MR. LAWRENCE on TCM would think of the new Steve "Cooler King" McQueen, here a confident, reluctant leader type in Maj. Jack "Strafer" Celliers, played by the always visibly offbeat and unusual "he's not just anyone" rock icon David Bowie...

The New Wave pioneer can't completely hide his subliminally bizarre aura even in a Second World War setting, a sort of irremovable tattoo upon his banana-blonde countenance... but as a guy who had a lucrative singing day job, he's a pretty good actor, although much of the valid performance is silent, unemotional and disassociated, allowing the man the film's named after, Tom Conti as Col. John Lawrence, a visual cross between Al Pacino and Griffin Dunne and always a capable character-actor, who blends into the background even when in the foreground, carefully trying to keep a deranged yet subdued Japanese prison camp leader, following strict edicts seeming more Samurai than 20th Century, from taking his vile powers out on both the prisoners and guards until, if he had his way, there'd be no one left but himself in a week's time...

Friendly lead Tom Conti
Therein, much of the suspense occurs within the edgy underline vibe of Ryûichi Sakamoto's stern, relatively young, severe and serpentine Capt. Yonoi along with a moody, older and more sincere second-in-command Takeshi Kitano as Sgt. Gengo Hara (seeming related to the "Mau" shouting Russian Roulette ref in THE DEER HUNTER), as visually contrasting to the intense Japanese firebrand as Conti and Bowie are to their elder English leader Captain Hickley, played by a rock solid Jack Thompson, the Richard Attenborough of this GREAT ESCAPE who should have had a bigger, more important role: but there's no escape nor plan of any, except in the mind...

Not so Friendly
Sporadic flashbacks from a slowly tortured Bowie's Celliers' English home-life having to do with a bullied little brother are visually intriguing but don't amount to much but a change in aesthetic atmosphere, taking the semi-intrigued viewer from the dingy-gray camp to a colorful arthouse daydream...

Yet some of Bowie's best moments occur back in real life with buried lead Conti as they discuss life and death, still within the fence while just-outside the perimeter of the prison barracks where they don't seem to belong...

Both standing out yet literally sitting down from all the other characters as if everyone else hardly exist at all: that's until the spontaneous villain gets another rabid notion of crime and punishment, and the palpable nightmare begins all over again. Making LAWRENCE somewhat of a treadmill experience –  but one that remains steady without being overlong, convoluted or too melodramatic.
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