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THE HANDLER – Grant Kirkhope

November 5, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The Handler is a low-budget action thriller written and directed by Michael Matteo Rossi. It stars Chris Levine as Ryker Dune – what a name! – a mercenary-for-hire who turns against his boss Vinnie Fiore (Michael Pashan) after a job pushes his morality buttons one too many times. Ryker looks for a way out of the contract killer life for good, but Vinnie has other ideas; eventually Ryker finds himself holed up in a house as wave after wave of Vinnie’s men try to kill him. Cue the gun fights, fist fights, and bone-crunching action. Normally this is the type of film that would pass under my radar entirely; the director is a relative newcomer, the cast is full of unknowns, and the plot makes it sound like a cut-price version of any number of video-on-demand action thrillers that are released in a seemingly endless stream. The difference is that The Handler marks the mainstream theatrical film music debut of Grant Kirkhope, one of the most high-profile and acclaimed composers from the world of video games.

For those who don’t know, Scottish-born Yorkshire-bred Kirkhope began his career in rock bands, most notably as part of the horn section of the band Little Angels, who supported Bon Jovi on tour in 1993. However, Kirkhope was also classically trained – he is a graduate of the Royal Northern College of Music – and began composing music for video games in 1995 as a member of staff at the legendary game company Rare. While at Rare Kirkhope scored numerous classic games, ranging from GoldenEye 007 to Banjo-Kazooie, Perfect Dark, and Viva Piñata, as well as the Nintendo 64 version of Donkey Kong, for which he provided the voice of DK himself. After relocating to the United States and going freelance, Kirkhope has written excellent music for games such as Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, Mickey Mouse’s Castle of Illusion, Civilization: Beyond Earth, Civilization: Beyond Earth – Rising Tide, Mario + Rabbids – Kingdom Battle, and World of Warcraft: Shadowlands.

However, throughout all this, and despite all his success as a game composer, Kirkhope has also had a long standing desire to branch out into scoring films. The number of people who have become successful film and TV composers after beginning their careers scoring games is shockingly short; Michael Giacchino is probably the most high profile, and people like Austin Wintory, Kevin Riepl, Neal Acree, and Gordy Haab are on the cusp of breaking through, but beyond that the names are few and far between. Interestingly, the number of composers who started in film and now regularly score games is much larger – Lorne Balfe, John Debney, Christopher Lennertz, Bear McCreary, Brian Tyler, even Patrick Doyle and Howard Shore, have all left their mark on the video game music scene in recent years.

It seems there’s a curious snobbery at work here, where established film composers are welcomed into the game industry seemingly with open arms, but established game composers wanting to write for film and television are not given the same opportunities, despite the compositional process being mostly identical, and despite the fact that game composers are writing some of the most brilliant, sophisticated, thematic, emotional orchestral media music in the world right now. Grant Kirkhope is one of them.

So, in an attempt to break into the film world, Kirkhope began scoring short films in 2015, one of which – a lovely animated film called The Wrong Rock – was in the running for an Animated Short Film Oscar nomination in 2018. He actually wrote his first full-length film score, for a fantasy epic called The King’s Daughter starring Pierce Brosnan, Kaya Scodelario, Benjamin Walker, and William Hurt, all the way back in 2016, but that film has been stuck in post-production and distribution hell for more than five years, which means that The Handler is now the very first film score of Kirkhope’s career.

In much the same way that the film is a throwback to the straight-to-video action thrillers of the 1980s and 90s, Kirkhope’s score is similarly nostalgic, adopting a style that favors recognizable themes and fully-orchestrated action music, rather than the drones and pulses that so many contemporary action movies seem to have these days. Budget constraints meant that Kirkhope had to do everything himself – he wrote it, arranged it, and performed it using high quality synths and samples, and then was his own recording mixer and music editor too – which means that the score has something of a retro sound, but ironically that all works in the score’s favor, complementing and enhancing the nostalgic style of the entire project.

The “Main Titles” introduces the score’s main theme, an undulating moody piano motif accompanied by electronic grooves and slick percussion, which eventually morphs and grows to encompass a bed of glassy strings that remind me of Jerry Goldsmith’s Basic Instinct, all sexy elongated textures with a sense of hidden menace. The main theme isn’t especially prominent thereafter; it comes back as part of the end credits suite in the finale, but the rest of the time it tends to sit in the background, content to play a supporting role to the moments of tension and anticipation, and to the real star of the show – the action.

“First Contact” is a perfect example of Kirkhope’s anxiety-inducing tension writing; it’s tight, like a coiled spring, waiting to snap. The cue is filled with sinister motifs for throbbing cellos and tom-toms, underpinned with hints of the main theme transposed to brass. There is a palpable sense of intrigue here, and of lurking danger. In the second half of the cue the music finally releases and erupts into the first of the score’s excellent action sequences – masculine, punchy brass lines over a bed of tempestuous percussion. This action feels like 1980s and 90s Jerry Goldsmith too – it reminds me of things like Rambo, Executive Decision, and Chain Reaction – in the way that Kirkhope uses his brass to carry rhythms rather than melodies, and in the rich clarity of the sound. But more on that later.

In cues like “I Got Your Back” and “No Privacy” Kirkhope explores the sinister periphery of his score through a series of moody passages for strings and brass, each built around elongated sustains conveying a sense of brooding darkness. “I Got Your Back” includes some percolating, buzzing electronic textures, almost with dance music rhythms, as well as a reprise of some of the ideas from the main title, while “No Privacy” ends with an action blast focusing on a conversation between spiky strings and low, blatting brass. In addition, “I Love You” is a soft romantic theme for sampled strings and gentle piano, which ends on a note of bittersweet tragedy.

However, for me, the score really bursts into life during the action sequences, four of which really showcase Kirkhope’s talents in this capacity. It shouldn’t be a surprise that he is great at action music – GoldenEye 007 and Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning were full of it, and his score for the 2014 game Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z was no slouch in that department either – but there is some really genuinely terrific stuff here, which allows the score to rise above its low budget roots and really shine. The first of these is “Keep ‘em Coming,” which opens with a series of massive brass pulses, and then explodes into a thrilling action sequence featuring flashing string writing overlaid with staccato brass. It’s energetic and exciting, and to me sounds like the sort of thing you might hear in a classic Bond film. There are also repeated instances where the music briefly pauses and dials down, before exploding again in all manner of satisfying ways.

“No Let Up” is bombastic, almost brutal in places, and it’s impressive how Kirkhope keeps changing the rhythmic patterns to create new, interesting sequences – one part has some especially fab echoes of the Bond score Live and Let Die. “Really Bad Trouble” starts slowly, an insidious little brass theme topped with layers of pulsating cellos and shifting violin chords, which worms its way under your skin. Gradually it becomes more intense, and eventually becomes a breathless fight sequence with especially notable use of rapped snares. The subsequent “Man to Man” again uses stop-start staccato rhythms and layered horns in a variety of fascinating ways which allow the whole thing to become really vibrant and intense. What’s also impressive about all this action writing is how varied and rich it sounds. Kirkhope uses numerous different brass sounds to keep the music interesting from a textural point of view, and also varies the percussion samples underneath it all, shifting from timpani to snares to kettle drums and more. I can only imagine how great this would all be if they had had the budget for a full orchestra.

“Ryker! Hold Your Breath” is an action cue interspersed with moments of quiet string-led reflection; I especially like the series of big, wet, imposing brass notes that give the second half of the cue a unique feel. The conclusive “I Left a Space For You” is actually a little more thoughtful and introspective than one might expect; it opens with a series of slow, dream-like string/synth textures, nervous tambourines, and heartbeat pulses, which gives the impression of something slowing down, and drifting away. Eventually it ends with some more of those wonderfully robust brass pulses, and a dramatic, emotional final flourish of dark drama. The 7-minute “End Credits” cue is a suite, including a reprise of the main titles, the love theme as heard in “I Love You,” and more of that superb action music.

It’s weird to call The Handler Grant Kirkhope’s ‘debut film score’ considering he’s been writing terrific music since 1996, but such are the limited opportunities for game music specialists that it has taken this long for anyone to actually give him the opportunity to write one, so here we are. If nothing else, it proves that this ridiculous ghettoization that exists in film music and game music, where they sit side by the side but never the twain shall meet, needs to end, and the composers who are writing the best game music also need to be given a shot at TVs and movies if they want them. There are dozens of terrific game composers who should be on that list, and Grant Kirkhope is absolutely one of them.

The Handler is a really great action score. Yes, the fact that it had to be performed entirely with synths and samplers does limit the sonics a little, and people who can’t stand keyboards pretending to be an orchestra may have a problem with that. But, considering the budget limitations he had to deal with, Kirkhope somehow managed to give the whole thing a surprisingly wide scope and an unexpected amount of textural depth. This, combined with his truly fabulous and energetic action writing, and the delicious throwbacks to both 1990s Jerry Goldsmith and (occasionally) classic Bond, makes it a score worth exploring – I just hope his next assignment gives him the budget to match. The soundtrack album is available from Kirkhope’s own label, Kirkcophony Music, to stream and download.

Buy the Handler soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Titles (3:20)
  • First Contact (3:37)
  • I Love You (2:41)
  • I Got Your Back (4:41)
  • Keep ‘em Coming (3:15)
  • No Privacy (2:02)
  • No Let Up (3:40)
  • Really Bad Trouble (5:27)
  • Man to Man (3:49)
  • Ryker! Hold Your Breath (2:25)
  • I Left a Space For You (7:12)
  • End Credits (7:26)

Running Time: 49 minutes 40 seconds

Kirkcophony Music (2021)

Music composed, arranged, and performed by Grant Kirkhope. Recorded and mixed by Grant Kirkhope. Edited by Grant Kirkhope and David S. Dawson. Album produced by Grant Kirkhope.

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