We’re in Sydney, Australia, during the roaring 20s. The criminal underworld in town is ruled by two “queens” who split the empire between the two of them. Kate Leigh provides people with liquor to dim their minds, while Tilly Devine takes care of the flesh by controlling prostitution. The two women can’t stand each other, but as they don’t interfere with each other’s business, there’s a balance present that keeps things in place and as such the police doesn’t really interfere.
That balance, however, gets distorted when Melbourne gangster Norman Bruhn travels to Sydney to take over power of the city. He quickly gets a gang together and as possession of unregistered firearms comes with jailtime, he gives his accomplices razors that can be used as weapons. The “razor gang” quickly makes a name for themselves and plays out both women against each other which results in a war in the Sydney criminal underworld that lasts for a decade.
Underbelly Razor is the fourth season of the Australian crime series Underbelly of which Sony previously already released the first season on DVD. This fourth season – this time in the hands of Dutch Filmworks – is based on the novel by Larry Writer that tells the true story of Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh between 1927 and 1936 and describes the birth of organised crime down under. This, combined with quotes on the cover like “Underbelly: Razor is to Boardwalk Empire what Spartacus is to Rome” or “Slices like Boardwalk Empire, Cuts like The Sopranos” of course makes that expectations are very high.
Impossibly high of course, as we’re talking about series with budgets that go into the millions while Underbelly has to do with quite a lot less. As such we don’t get digitalised decors and famous movie actors, but the Australian cast and crew do deliver something you can arguably call bad. The story is interesting to follow, and that mainly due to the human aspect that comes forth quite strongly. In American shows we see strong characters who don’t really care about a body or two more, while here people tend to be quite more cautious when it comes to effectively killing someone and the gangsters in this Australian series are portrayed more as people who do make mistakes and let themselves be guided by stupid details whhere in American shows we see this a lot less.
Too bad that the voice-over sets the expectations a bit wrong. At a given moment for example, it’s said that a certain action makes that the bloodshed in Sydney rises exponentially, and the next episode we then get to see a street fight where a bunch of people start bashing each other. Or we see a “gunman” who’s all but the coldblooded gangster we would expect. Our expectations – created by watching countless American series and movies – make that the criminals in Underbelly Razor look like a bunch of amateurs. That one of the characters wants to become the Australian Al Capone and then doesn’t get any further than waving his knife a bit is a good example of how you have to see things in perspective.
Don’t let that stop you from giving this series a change, though. Once you start watching Underbelly Razor is fun to follow and the acting – except for one or two cast members – is quite good. Also the setting is realistic and you get a good view of Sydney during the time of the Great Depression, how the first women joined the police, how the first specialized narcotics department was set up, and so on.
As long as you take the predictions of violence with a grain of salt you’re ok, and most of all it seems to us that in Australia – where this series apparently is quite controversial due to the high level of “violence and sex” – people aren’t used to a lot.
One thing we certainly can’t complain about it the technical quality. The Blu-ray release delivers very nice images with pastel colors, a good level of detail, decent black levels and contrast. Maybe that things could look a bit sharper, but we’re not complaining. The same also goes for the soundtrack. There aren’t many effects in the background, but the DTS-HD track does provide a good allround sound with music filling the room and clear dialogues.