Al Waad (The Promise) is a perfect title for veteran scriptwriter Wahid Hamed’s latest penned picture, a heading that, as a matter of fact, turns out to be rather more ominous than assuring. The splendid first act is quickly hampered by the cluttered, jagged middle and final parts of the films. In two thirds of the movie, Hamed juggles with different genres, a number of entwined themes and several subtexts.
And although the film has its moments and merits, the fact is “The Promise is another major disappointment from Egypt’s premier scriptwriter; a far cry from the masterpieces he produced in the 80s and 90s. The unavoidable question looming large over the film is this: Has the master lost his touch?
Asser Yassin (“Zay El Naharda , “El Gezira ) is Adel El Ghamry, a young, smart man making his way up a shady criminal chain controlled by police general-turned-businessman turned mega mob boss El Sehrawy (Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud of “Kingdom of Heaven and “Pirates of the Caribbean 3 ); although we never get to know what type of activities he performed at the beginning of his career.
Adel’s latest assignment is rather simple: taking care of the El Sehrawy’s aging former top assassin Youssef Tawfik (great Egyptian actor Mahmoud Yassin) who’s dying of cancer. Youssef and Adel hit it off quickly, the latter finding a father-figure in Youssef while the former takes Adel as a sincere, trustworthy companion who might be able to help him realize his final wish: to be buried on a high altitude overlooking a sea view.
To his surprise, Youssef reveals to Adel that he’s a Copt, leading the latter to seek the help of Girgis (Ahmed Azmy), a young kind-hearted, scruffy-looking Coptic undertaker who had spent his entire life with the dead and, as he puts it, “serving God.
Meanwhile, Adel embarks on a relationship with a young, forward sultry beauty-salon worker Farha (controversial pop singer Ruby) who also happens to be a posh prostitute following a chance-encounter at a high-end coffee shop. Girgis and Farha soon become involved in Adel’s lethal scheme to rebel against his boss.
The brilliant set-up of the first act is built on the Greek tragedies model; a group of characters with no choice, forced to confront their destinies while battling against unseen, unapproachable external powers.
From that point forward, particularly after Youssef’s face-off with the cold-hearted, vindictive assassin Arnous (Bassem El Samra), the primary plotline of the story is steered into multiple directions abundant with clichés, poor twists and a number of revelations that don’t reveal much about the characters or the mysterious circumstances responsible for the ensuing inciting incident.
What director Mohamed Yassin and Hamed consequently offer is a disjointed action flick, a doomed punk romance, a political allegory and social commentary, all blended into one strange cocktail with an extra philosophical claptrap.
Youssef is a man who spent nearly his entire life living in the shadow of an honor crime he committed back in the days. The subsequent path he was forced to take left him with no hope for redemption. You might get the false impression that he uses Adel to reach salvation, but he really isn’t. His heart has grown too numb to yield one last selfless act. As a matter of fact, despite its seemingly standard make-up, Youssef’s is the only complex, multi-dimensional character of the film.
The same can’t be said about the rest of the characters. Adel was driven to the wayward side of life after discovering that his mother was a prostitute. Farha is the product of a broken family; an abusive, philandering step-father and a lackadaisical mother who kicked her out of their house at a young age. El Sehrawy, on the other hand, is the typical corrupted, one-dimensional Machiavellian businessman.
Even Girgis, who initially functions as a breath of fresh air with his childish demeanor and gullibility, is ultimately transformed into the customary Hollywood-archetype of the innocent kid longing for danger and adventure.
Midway through, the film changes gear into a man vs. establishment story on the vein of John Boorman’s 1967 classic “Point Blank starring Lee Marvin sans the directness, focus or ferociousness. Part of the second act’s several problems is that Adel lacks strong motivation for his successive crusade, and his relationship with Hamed’s recurrent corrupted establishment is ill-defined.
The former title of the film “Taht El Saytara (Under Control) says it all. In a nutshell, Hamed attempted to expound on the notion of the unaccountable authority inbred in a larger system that contributes in nurturing it. Such an enterprise can only breed men like Adel and Youssef, men that are essentially of El Sehrawy’s ilk. Hamed then suggests that perhaps the only way to fight the power is through abiding by the same principles.
On paper, it all sounds neat and intriguing, although not a major departure from Hamed’s previous works such as “El Le’b Maa El Kobar (Playing with the Big Boys) and “El Mansy (The Forgotten) to name a few. Yet his quest for a fresh new context, or rather an unusual one, has ironically led to his downfall. The interjection of diverting themes such as forgiveness, second chances and the ever-present tension between Muslims and Christians, are clear signs of a desperate writer incapable of channeling his ambition into proper straits.
In the acting department, Mahmoud Yassin steals the film with his brief turn as Youssef. Here’s an actor who remains at the prime of his career after 30 years in the business. There’s isn’t one false note in Yassin’s performance, injecting his character with a concealed shade of unripe remorse and perpetual resilience. In fact, Youssef remains mostly an unsolved mystery.
I’m a big fan of Asser Yassin and he does manage to make the best of a mostly undeveloped, predictable character, giving another notable performance of a man infused with unreleased rage. Yet there are some noticeable instances where he goes over the top.
As for Ruby, she surprisingly shows potential for a commanding actress with a distinctive persona, imposing screen presence and unexpected depth. Her performance though is somehow theatrical, acting generally like a mouthpiece for Hamed’s words. She’s not to blame though, her failure to overcome Hamed’s hammy dialogue is mainly the responsibility of director Mohamed Yassin who didn’t succeed in guiding her to the correct direction.
Rising star Ahmed Azmy delivers what might be the best performance of his short career, simmering with remarkable naturalness and effervescence, and compelling the audience to sympathize and even love his character.
Yet the shadow of Hamed’s highly uneven script eclipses all efforts to create a good film, including Yassin’s direction. Employing the talents of revered DOP Mohsen Ahmed, Yassin frames his film under a slightly dark lens with occasional washed out colors that reflects the mood of the story. Yet he evidently seems lost in handling the constant change of track, directing each sequence as a separate movie that adds to conspicuous lack of visual and thematic unity. The action scenes in Morocco are eerily lifted directly off “The Bourne Ultimatum without the latter’s special coherence.
“The Promise leaves you with many question marks hanging up in the air. The conclusion is passé and unsatisfying, providing a feeble, specious answer to the unresolved conflict of the first act. By the end of the movie, you can’t escape the impression that Hamed, once again, got lost in the grandiosity of his own creation, failing to tie loose ends and overlooking the main idea he set to explore.