Son of a Gun, a tense crime drama about a young man who finds himself trapped within a ruthless crime syndicate, is the debut feature from Australian director Julius Avery, whose short Jerrycan won a Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It features an international cast, including Ewan McGregor (Trainspotting, The Ghost Writer) and Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair, Anna Karenina) as well as newcomer Brenton Thwaites, and was shot in Perth, Melbourne and Kalgoorlie. The latter location is a terrific setting for some of the film’s most vivid latter half sequences, with the rugged ash-coloured terrain surrounding the gold mines perfect in conveying the sense of isolation felt by the young protagonist.

Placed in a maximum-security prison for six months following a minor offence, 19-year-old JR (Thwaites) confronts the harsh realities of the life. When he begins to be terrorized by fellow inmates he finds himself taken under the wing of Brendan Lynch (McGregor), a feared and highly respected crime boss whose reputation is widely known and respected. With extensive connections outside of prison, he offers JR protection while inside if he will assist in the orchestration of Lynch’s daring escape once he is released. From there he is introduced to Perth’s dangerously seductive underworld and meets the beautiful Tasha (Vikander), and as Lynch plans his next high-stakes heist the dependent relationship between mentor and protégé grows increasingly unpredictable.

As is made clear several times, a king in the game of chess can be taken down in many ways, even by a pawn. JR is destined to become a manipulated pawn in Lynch’s scheme, but we sense he has the grit and courage to find a way out. Though he doesn’t possess any power in the gang, he is a survivor and has earned his stripes. Lynch is a remorseless and calculating individual, and JR makes decisions that make the game between them dangerous, yet they find out they rely on each other more than either expected.

The film’s twisty final act caught me off guard and there are some brutal moments of violence with the capacity to shock and some stressful and well-crafted set pieces - the prison escape, the infiltration of a Kalgoorlie gold mine to steal dollars worth of newly poured bars and an exciting car chase.

For a good stretch this is a confidently directed and good-looking film. Though it is gets too convoluted for its own good it never ceases to engage - whether it is a gritty prison drama, a stylish underworld initiation or heist thriller. Save for one cute sequence between Thwaites and Vikander, the romantic subplot was one of the film’s weakest elements. Jed Kurzel’s score is effective – it always is, see Snowtown and Dead Europe - but a few of the song choices are highly dubious.

It is such a shame when Son of a Gun falls into the trap of the genre’s clichés. It becomes a completely different film (a far weaker film), if only for a single scene, before finding its feet again. Vikander, a talented Danish actress, can only do so much with her ‘potential femme fatale’, a dangerous, untrustworthy love interest desperate to escape the grasp of Jacek Koman’s slimy Russian mafia boss.

As compelling as McGregor is as a badass, and impressive as Thwaites is, the supporting cast are completely forgettable. From the one-dimensional rapey inmate, to an antagonist – Koman’s jealous and weedy nephew who nearly bungles everything - so dumb it is embarrassing, this is a film with obvious issues.

The film’s inconsistencies are in favor of its best qualities. It manages to do something interesting with its tropes most of the time, and it is an encouraging crime thriller that should easily find an audience to champion it.

[rating=3] and a half

Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22

Directed by: Julius Avery

Written by: Julius Avery

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Brenton Thwaites, Alicia Vikander, Jacek Koman, Matt Nable, Tom Budge

Andy Buckle is a passionate Sydney-based film enthusiast and reviewer who has built a respected online voice at his personal blog, The Film Emporium. Andy will contribute reviews, features and be our resident film festival, and awards expert.