Hmm. Okay, this one is interesting.
Some movies function as a whole. Some excel in certain areas, but fall down in others. As ever, the golden rule holds: it’s the characters that really count.
He Never Died lies somewhere between dark fantasy and horror, with a strong streak of remarkably dry and mordant humour running through it, and it depends absolutely upon the performance of Henry Rollins as Jack, the central character. Fortunately, Rollins has more than enough presence and gravitas to carry it off, which is less easy than it sounds: Jack is actually an accursed immortal, bound to live by consuming human flesh and blood.
And he’s been around for a very long time.
What would it like to be immortal? What if your immortality was predicated upon acts of horror and violence? Worse: what if you couldn’t forget any of it? And make no mistake; the writer of this film wants you to know that Jack remembers every detail. There’s a scene, late in the film, where Jack is under considerable stress and a support character gabbles off her mobile number so he can call her in for help when needed. She realises the problem, and tries to repeat the number and give him a pen — but he waves her off with a casual “No, I got it.”
It’s beautiful, subtle, understated writing. This character can recall a ten-digit number blathered at him once, while he’s on his way into a mafia den to rescue a daughter he didn’t know he had. So — what can he forget? Nothing, I suspect. Every instant of thousands of years of blood and violence is with him at all times.
Did I mention that Jack comes across as more or less insane? Functional, yes, but insane. Or to look at it another way: he has exactly the kind of sanity you’d expect under the circumstances. This is actually the heart of the film. The main story — Jack discovers he has a daughter; the daughter is kidnapped by some mafiosi that he’s managed to piss off (Jack pisses almost everybody off, it would seem): Jack enlists the aid of his local diner waitress to help rescue the daughter — is lightweight. It simply provides a framework for a series of encounters between Jack and the world that we understand, and these encounters, in turn, gradually help us build up a picture of what (and ultimately who) Jack is.
To be honest, the revelation of Jack’s identity was something of a letdown for me. I won’t spoil it. You might react differently. But that revelation more or less provides the climax of the film, and it didn’t really raise the bar by much for me. Nevertheless, Rollin’s evocation of Jack — deadpan, full of seething, repressed energy, despairingly pragmatic about life, death and violence — is really wonderful, and carries the film more than sufficiently for me.
The rest is gravy. The direction is tight. The visuals are excellent: strong use of urban decay as a supporting metaphor for the damaged immortal himself. The support performances are also fine — with the exception of one actor who seemed to be trying to channel Jack Nicholson, and really should have known better — so there’s not much to complain about at all. I suppose, if I really wanted to get picky, I could complain that a film which centres on a musician as the central performer could have had a stronger soundtrack… I really don’t recall the music at all.
But that really would be nitpicking. This was a fun film, and I recommend seeing it more than once just to appreciate what Rollins brings to the piece.