The Parole Officer (15)

Review by Marc Ashdown

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Scene access; making-of documentary; deleted scenes; audio commentary by cast and crew; Music video: Eternal Flame, by Atomic Kitten; Theatrical trailer.

HOME-grown funnyman Steve Coogan scores a direct hit with his well-meaning but incompetent parole officer in a classic comedy crime caper which asks little, yet delivers much.

A hero with a track record for failure and a penchant for salt and vinegar crisps doesn't really sit comfortably alongside your average crime fighter, but in the hands of Coogan - the man who truly thought he was it with comedy creations Alan Partridge, Tony Ferrino, Paul and Pauline Calf et al - the eponymous character proves an adequate substitute; opting for curry, coffee flasks and Trojan pink elephants as the tools of his trade in favour of the more usual gimmick and gadgets.

The success of this, Coogan's first foray into the movie world after forging a successful TV and stage career, really hinged on his Simon Garden being more funny than irritating, naively charming than gratingly cheesy. If there's a criticism of his character portfolio to date, it's that after the hilariously cringe-worthy Partridge, he's systematically failed to hit the same high note with any of his subsequent creations.

But thankfully Simon is just about the perfect incarnation to allow Coogan to suitably show-off his mesmeric range of facial and verbal anomalies, while achieving an empathetic audience connection which renders it natural for the character to stretch the length of a movie instead of being constrained to a five-minute sketch.

Certainly destined to be one of the more warmly regarded Brit-flicks of recent years, this is simplicity at its best - a bog standard crime-caper delivered with the perfect measure of chuckles, belly laughs and heart. Appalling parole officer Simon, with a record of three hits from a thousand in terms of reformed criminals to his name, finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time to witness a murder and is about to be fitted up for the crime.

Using all his limited know-how, he realises his only chance to clear his name is to locate the CCTV tape on which the murder was recorded (as always seems to be the case - criminals are so careless these days) and race it to the cops.

Perfect plan, one problem: the tape is in a safety deposit box in a bank. So he enlists the help of the three criminals he helped to turn straight and embarks on a series of farcical capers to steal it. Admittedly, it doesn't sound like the kind of premise from which classics spring, but it's one of those mysterious films that shouldn't work, but somehow does.

Perfect in length, there's no sag or attempt at sentimentality and it just ambles along offering up delightfully spot-on gags which make it a harmlessly enjoyable experience.

Highlights have to be the packet of crisps scene, museum ladies toilet incident and a rollercoaster ride which proves curry, dodgy stomachs and fast rides can still serve up laughs when handled by true comics. Om Puri, Steven Waddington and Ben Miller prove the perfect inept trio to help Simon on his quest - less A-team, more Z-squad - and Stephen Dillane creeps around as the cocky and murderous corrupt cop, who's slimy but still pantomime enough not to make it too dark.

Lena Heady is understated as the love-interest and thankfully plays more for laughs than love and an uncredited Omar Sharif pops up to offer some sage advice, which could have been disastrous but actually works well. Holding it all together, though, is Coogan, and it's his film in every respect. Co-writer and star, it's the best role he's devised in years and he literally runs with it throughout.

It's so difficult to find fault with something that doesn't try too hard and delivers exactly what you'd expect from it, that I won't bother. Instead, just do yourself a favour on a drab and dreary night, shelve all critical expectations and go and have a good old laugh. Taken like that, this definitely won't disappoint.