It feels almost appropriate that a tale of a shamed elite should take place in post-colonial Singapore, with its pedigreed elite teaching struggling blacks to dance and spit fire with a tikka and gourd. It also feels appropriate that a thriller about late-night skullduggery is largely concerned with a robot pretending to be a human servant. But make no mistake, a movie about how a feudal landed class tries to administer a war criminal’s punishment outside of prison is very important indeed.
In Singapore, a city that has converted its huge wealth into votes for its ruling party, the 36th government has found itself in the unlikely position of having to defend itself against a charge of racism from the opposition. Its back is up against the wall because, five years after Jokowi, now the president, emerged as a near-constant rival of the ruling party, a newly elected opposition member of parliament has pressed for the deportation of a former associate of the ruling party leader, an agent of the Indonesian security services who was sentenced to 27 years in prison in Jakarta for treason and terrorism. You’d expect the message to go out loud and clear in Singapore and seem much more credible when delivered from the lips of a well-spoken opposition politician than from a pitchman for a pair of yakka-sack shoes.
Thumbs, the movie, sets itself up well with a straightforward graphic novel narrative that leaves just enough information about the complicated history of Singapore to keep it clear-cut, even as it introduces us to a bare-knuckled ruler in Bandit, leader of a gang whose guys are regarded as red-skinned soothsayers, and a pair of skeazy twins who like throwing pots and bottles at the homecoming parade of a guerrilla fighter.
Accompanied by a song set to the tune of the Taiwanese crooner Cher’s “Famously Beautiful,” the opening section asks us to picture a long-dead, charismatic, exotic nobleman as a young man. It then rewinds two centuries to show the rise of a disaffected bandit and his army against an arrogant ruler (Jeremy Renner), who again shows that his newly opened Singaporean palace serves as a space for political power with which to impose his will on a reluctant populace and keep his sons in line, as well as waging battle overseas and trying to disrupt the peace between regional powers.
The script’s two leads are hardly actors, but they do help carry the film, which fails to find the necessary tone when dealing with its issues of conflict, transition, and tradition in the richly layered society of Singapore, which has been subservient to China, Japan, the United States, and Indonesia since the 1930s. When a fully formed young woman is forced to have a child, she has a healthy shock of conscience as she lays a dowry on the death bed of her husband’s mercenary lover. But when Bandit’s sister is banished from Singapore for her “unpatriotic acts,” Renner, a taller, blonder version of Charlton Heston as Moses in Ben-Hur, doubles down on his car salesman-speak as he attempts to get her refugee back into society as his own and the subject of a Khmer Rouge intervention.
This is Renner’s show, though, and he’s game, particularly when it comes to the comically difficult task of doing stand-up comedy while singing the chorus of Cher’s hit in a way that is absolutely effortless — other than the fake accent that keeps slipping up. But this is a heavily scripted production, much of it by an American screenwriter named Eric Heisserer, whose zombie thriller Arrival was stuffed to the gills with extra dialogue for aliens to crash into. The actor once famous for the lead role in the Boyhood film franchise is now busy doing the work of a cartoon voice in a funny cartoon movie. Thumbs takes a moment here to explain how it all works, with the handsome Renner doing both the talking and the singing (at least in his voice). And, of course, we should be told that there’s a part of the government that’s very, very concerned about what’s going on.