Though Tarantino fans may feel deja vu watching “Tales of Babylon”, it’s a fun ride that blends heart, humor, and hard-hitting crime thrills.
Tales of Babylon is written and directed by 22-year-old Pelayo De Lario, fresh off his award-winning 2021 debut Jack, an unconventional, microbudget comedy that made a splash on the festival circuit (currently boasting an 89% critics score on Rotten Tomatoes).
In his sophomore feature, De Lario opts for a more conventional suspense thriller about crime, violence, and redemption in London.
But a more conventional tale doesn’t mean it’s not quirky or afraid to lean into the comedy.
De Lario unapologetically wears his influences on his sleeve, and Tales of Babylon will no doubt remind you of Tarantino’s early work with films like Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs.
De Lario doesn’t care if you make that connection; he happily makes it for you.
In an early scene, two of our main characters, good-natured hitmen X (Ray Calleja) and Y (Aaron Cobham), find themselves in a precarious situation with a couple of thugs who are holding a crime boss’s granddaughter in the bathroom.
Before entering the bathroom to rescue the child, X reminds Y to be careful, given the strong possibility that another criminal may be hiding in the bathroom waiting to ambush.
It’s just like that scene in that movie, whose name he can’t recall, where Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta get shot at by a man hiding in the bathroom.
In the film, the shooter is a comically bad shot. But in real life, X cautions, he and his partner likely wouldn’t be so lucky.
We, of course, know he’s talking about Pulp Fiction, a fact that X soon figures out at the climax of a scene that feels like it was lifted straight out of the Tarantino classic.
There’s a fine line between homage and plagiarism; some may argue that De Lario crosses that line.
But there’s enough heart, originality, and sincerity to make Tales of Babylon feel more like genuine admiration than outright thievery.
The film opens with a sequence featuring a sullen and depressed man (Philip Tomlin), whose name we don’t know, as he goes about his day from rise to sleep and over again.
In a mostly silent montage scored by Marika Hackman’s ethereal I Follow Rivers, he goes through the motions of his unhappy life — devoid of passion, joy, or fulfillment. He’s relentlessly bullied by neighborhood thugs and berated by his cruel boss.
The scene ends with the man finally snapping during a nasty encounter with a bully when he loses it and viciously fights back against his attacker.
The man, whose name we later learn is Martin (aka Mort), disappears for most of the film, returning much later during a pivotal scene. But it’s an engaging cold open that leads into a fun title sequence that lets us know we can expect both violence and verve — a crime drama with plenty of panache.
Next, we meet a man in red boots, known only as the Professional (Albert Tallski), instructing another man to keep a close on a young girl in his care. If he values his life, he won’t let anything happen to her.
We soon see two other men in the apartment, and one of them expresses concern about what will happen to the girl (Billie Gadson), worried she might get returned to The Dragon.
That’s a name that seems to strike fear into the hearts of all hardened criminals.
It takes a bit for us to realize that The Dragon (aka The Silver Dragon, played by Game of Thrones veteran Clive Russell) is the girl’s grandfather, a particularly foul man who also happens to run a crime empire.
X and Y arrive at the apartment where the girl is behind held, looking for Alex (Dylan Gadson), the owner of the apartment and the girl’s older brother.
There’s the aforementioned bloody altercation. X and Y rescue the girl.
Y leaves to find Alex, and X is left to look after the girl, which he does with great affection and compassion, giving us some of the most heartwarming scenes in the film as the two form an unlikely bond.
De Lario makes it abundantly clear that, in this world, not all bad guys are created equal.
Some are despicable, many are just boneheaded opportunists, and some are relatively good guys caught in a bad situation.
Tales of Babylon is broken up into five parts, with the first four parts introducing a significant new player in the story and the last chapter serving as the climactic showdown.
Besides X and Y, we have a one-eyed, eyepatch-wearing assassin named Mother Nature (Maria Crittell playing a character likely crafted as a nod to Darryl Hannah’s character in Tarantino’s Kill Bill), the previously (briefly) introduced Professional, the terrifying Silver Dragon — who will likely remind Succession fans a bit of Logan Roy at his tyrannical worst — and Mort from the opening sequence.
We also get a really fun diversion with a couple of hilarious cleaners (Stephanie Louse and Aidan Mosby), including a woman from Liverpool who speaks in gibberish.
In another clear Pulp Fiction homage, the story is told in vignettes woven together across different timelines to establish connections between the main characters before bringing everyone together for an epic finale faceoff.
In De Lario’s director’s statement (he also produced the film with his brother), he states:
“I wrote Tales of Babylon as a type of love letter to this city, a story compiling all the stories and characters that make this city unique, that make a melting pot of different cultures and stories, a city with a thousand different tales and just as many ways of telling them. I wanted to show a different side of the city I love so much, a side that felt more real to my experiences growing up here.”
Tales of Babylon blends a frenetic pace, visual style, and plenty of dark humor to create a wickedly fun thrill ride that keeps you engaged despite its lengthy two-hour runtime.
Though the film revolves around London’s seedy element, it’s not hard to care about the characters and invest in their plight.
Its unique structure makes it enjoyable to uncover the connections between the characters and figure out how all the pieces fit together.
The finale is a blast, featuring a fantastic spaghetti Western-inspired shootout.
Billie Gadson, whose character is simply listed as The Kid, is incredibly endearing, delivering a strong performance from a child actor. The brilliant Clive Russell is a vile, scenery-chewing villain you’ll love to hate. And Mort/Martin is a surprise standout, opening and closing the film with a bang.
The high point, however, is the electric chemistry between X and Y, who we suspect have feelings for each other that run much deeper than just a professional partnership.
Calleja and Cobham are outstanding, carrying much of the film on their backs, with Calleja’s somewhat dimwitted but kind-hearted X stealing the show.
The final shot is an absolute chef’s kiss.
Tales of Babylon may not be the most unique film you’ve ever seen, but it’s perfectly charming, highly entertaining, and well worth your time.
It’s a reverential love letter to the places and films that inspire De Lario. It’s also a mightily impressive feat from such a young filmmaker.
Besides stellar performances, the script is cleverly crafted, and the film looks and sounds terrific.
From savvy editing to sumptuous tracking shots, De Lario shows the mastery behind the camera you’d expect from a much more seasoned director. It’s clear he has an extraordinary future ahead of him, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
The end-credits song, Father John Misty’s Funtimes in Babylon, is as on-point as the song that opens the film.
Its haunting refrain, “Look out Hollywood, here I come,” seems it could double as a battle cry for De Lario, who delivers an accomplished calling card with Tales of Babylon — positioning him at the precipice of huge success.
And be sure to stick around for a short but sweet mid-credits scene that brings a bit more closure to a couple of characters.
Ultimately, Tales of Babylon is a superb surprise infused with as much heart as hard-nosed violence.