Thursday, February 27, 2014

Nothing But A Cheap Crook

Al Pacino wanted to play Johnny Handsome. In Lawrence Grobel’s book of interviews with the actor he talks about how he was going to do the film with director Harold Becker and he loved it, loved the part, that it was his favorite role ever, but as the script was worked on he felt they never got the right third act so it didn’t happen, finally saying, “Mickey Rourke did a great job on it but that didn’t matter; the movie didn’t have the finish.” On the film’s imdb page it states that Pacino dropped out because he “felt, despite numerous revisions, they had never been able to transcend the script’s B-movie qualities.” Which of course isn’t quite what he says to Grobel so maybe there’s another quote from him on it out there but, regardless, there is an interesting point to be made of what a film should be, what it can be turned into and if transcending the roots of a concept is actually a good idea. As it was finally made, JOHNNY HANDSOME which starred Rourke in the title role was directed by Walter Hill who I doubt ever had a problem with B-movie qualities and was certainly able to bring out the undeniable essence of character within a pulp framework in addition to making a full-on action film with all the energy imaginable. Hill’s JOHNNY HANDSOME didn’t do much business when it was released on September 29, 1989 but I’ve always admired its noirish stripped-down qualities and no-nonsense approach to the story, things which can certainly be said about any number of Walter Hill films. It fully embraces its roots in a way that this director seems to know how to do like few others. It still feels that way now. And you know what? The third act actually is kind of problematic. But let’s put that aside for the time being.
Deformed crook John Sedley (Mickey Rourke), known as ‘Johnny Handsome’ because of his appearance, is talked into pulling a job by his only friend Mikey (Scott Wilson) who is desperately in need of money. But things go wrong when they are double crossed in the middle of the job by accomplices Sunny Boyd (Ellen Barkin) and Rafe Garrett (Lance Henriksen) who kill Mikey and leave John for dead. After an attempt on his life in prison he winds up in a hospital where plastic surgeon Dr. Steven Fisher (Forest Whitaker) is looking for someone to test his new procedure on, giving John a new face and new identity but in spite of the skepticism of needling cop Lt. A.Z. Drones (Morgan Freeman) who knows what Johnny is deep down, things seem to be going well with a new job and nice new girl Donna McCarty (Elizabeth McGovern). But Johnny still has his eye on revenge and seeks out his old accomplices who don’t recognize him, with a plan for a new robbery and a ways to get back at them.
If you averaged out the running times of Walter Hill’s films you would probably come somewhere between 90 and 100 minutes (1993’s GERONIMO at 115 minutes is the exception to this). JOHNNY HANDSOME, coming in at about 93 minutes falls in the lower end of that spectrum and that lean feel of narrative economy is apparent right from the start, wasting no time with introducing us to the characters and who they are, moving quickly to the all-out assault of the initial heist. Ultimately this approach is what JOHNNY HANDSOME (screenplay by Ken Friedman, based on the novel “The Three Worlds of Johnny Handsome” by John Godey) really is, a walk down a short, dark alley where there might be some momentary respite from the nastiness of this world but ultimately it just leads to a brick wall. Everything is a given, everything is inevitable and the way Hill tells the story he sees no reason to waste time—early on once the initial heist is finished we go from Johnny’s sentencing to the prison then finally to the hospital after the attempt on his life in the space of about two minutes. The film keeps moving, placing the emphasis on the noir-soaked nature of the story and this world instead of the action although since this is Walter Hill he never holds back on the gunplay, not at all, as well as forever juicy details in the dialogue like how the guys hired to kill Johnny in prison were paid “a grand each and cigarettes”.
And each of these characters are perfect in this world—Barkin’s Sunny and Henriksen’s Rafe are soaked in their own nastiness but are really just a bickering couple dependent on each other more than they want to admit, Whitaker’s doctor and his straightforward earnestness, Freeman’s cop who’s one step of every person he’s having a conversation with and Rourke as the title character, the calm center to the film as if in his earlier life Johnny was never fully formed because the world never allowed him to be. “Johnny don’t need no mask” is the childhood taunt he remembers and now that he’s finally given a mask he’s determined to use it while the white-hatted Lt. Drones taunts him, knowing what’s coming, knowing the truth that the ultimately decent doctor can never see since he can never understand the limitations of the mask he’s giving Johnny, that this is nothing more than a ‘genetic abnormality’ that needs to be fixed. He doesn’t even understand that, ultimately, a mask is all it is with Johnny staring at the photos of his old self, wondering who he really is, nothing to be afraid of anymore since in some ways he’s already died. Freeman, with a moment I love where he bursts out into a surprised smile at seeing the new Johnny where he states, “That is fucking amazing”, thinks that Whitaker is naïve and he’s not wrong but the doctor is just as someone who wants to bring the good out and he sees no reason why that can’t happen. Much as Al Pacino didn’t want it to be, the heart of JOHNNY HANDSOME isn’t its potential as character study as much as a simple demonstration of noir allowing the characters to emerge from that whiskey soaked atmosphere, so much that if you told me it was a faithful remake of a 75 minute film made in 1948 for the bottom half of a double bill I wouldn’t be surprised (Pauline Kael in her review speculates that film would be the 1941 Joan Crawford vehicle A WOMAN’S FACE but JOHNNY HANDSOME is much more down and dirty). And I wish it was so I could watch the two versions back to back.
The opening third detailing Johnny’s path to his new face offers some of the best work of Hill’s career without a wasted frame, giving us a feel of each of the characters. The three acts of the film are more or less broken down into the path to getting the new face, living with the new face and then using the new face to disguise the old face. The approach maybe isn’t perfect—the effect of the more experimental first third is broken slightly when it moves to the next section, opening with a montage of Johnny at his new job that is scored a little like a beer commercial and while there’s no way for such a spell not to be broken but it still feels like a misstep, taking us away from his head and a little too much into the outside world. You can feel Hill letting the actors dig into their characters and there’s a certain joy in that—just looking at their faces, whatever their real faces are, becomes the movie more than anything else—with the visual style like the following year’s ANOTHER 48 HRS. directed by Hill on which Matthew F. Leonetti also served as director of photography relies more on close-ups than Hill had done earlier in his career. When Sunny and Rafe reenter the story in the second half it’s frankly a joy to watch them and I certainly wouldn’t mind a few more scenes of just the two actors playing them snarling at each other but in keeping the pace going the film doesn’t waste time moving towards the second big heist either. More than anything it’s hurt by how the final section post-heist feels like a process of moving chess pieces into place more than telling the story of the title character since while things should barrel forward at this point there are the issues of laundering the money and certain people learning Johnny’s true identity and getting everyone to the same place for the climax. If it could have accomplished all this sooner while paying attention to the arc of the title character and run only 75 minutes, like the mythical black & white verison I mentioned, it might have been better than just another cool Walter Hill film. It might have been a minor classic.
But even in the final third here there are memorable moments, such as a phenomenal scene where Henriksen’s Rafe pulls a gun on Barkin’s Sunny and she, not caring, just walks past him. He holds his gun on her, wanting to pull the trigger on her and not bringing himself to doing it. Hill holds on the shot, letting the actors play out the moment as if it’s on stage and it couldn’t be more electrifying. The director isn’t trying to find these characters through speeches that they make so everything doesn’t stop while Johnny explains more than we ever need to know to Elizabeth McGovern’s Donna. Instead much of it is about the behavior in what these fantastic actors make out of these moments. Maybe the story needed an extra beat or two so things didn’t seem quite so clinical in the inevitability of what happens, where Johnny realizes that he has no choice but to do what he’s going to do since that’s the way the world is going to be no matter what. The story doesn’t always live up to the best moments, maybe that finish the film never found that Pacino alluded to, and I haven’t spent any time trying to come up with a better third act myself but at its best JOHNNY HANDSOME feels bracingly alive in a way that maybe only Walter Hill can deliver.
What does the story of this film inadvertently say about what has happened to Mickey Rourke’s face in the years since? Since this comes at the very end of the 80s it almost seems like the very end of classic-era Rourke (DESPERATE HOURS and HARLEY DAVIDSON AND THE MARLBORO MAN came after, followed by oblivion for a few years). It’s an unusual close to that period if that’s the case considering how much the character is supposed to be a blank, with his most emotional moments coming before his face changes. At first speechless at the sight of his new face, afterwards it’s as if he allows the blank of his new face to work for him, to play off of the much bigger performances around him and it’s continually fascinating to watch. Ellen Barkin (in one of two films released in September ’89—the other was SEA OF LOVE which also starred, what do you know, Al Pacino and was directed by Harold Becker) is phenomenal here, ferociously and terrifyingly sexy, fearless, grabbing hold of every scene she’s in and biting off every last ounce of meat she can find. The name Sunny couldn’t possibly seem less appropriate for her character and Barkin plays it as if she thought Marie Windsor in THE KILLING was too nice and sweet—when she tells Rourke, her old DINER co-star, that he’s giving her bad thoughts one can’t help but wonder what sort of thoughts she’d been having beforehand. She’s absolutely fearless here, taunting Johnny with a cry of “geek” like the kids who teased him when he was a kid, and the way her voice goes down on the word ‘gave’ when she says, “Either that or I gave it away” to Henriksen makes me think statues should be erected in her honor.
Really, all of these performances nail it—Lance Henriksen’s shitkicker glare, pounding down the whiskey is one of the best characters of his career, Morgan Freeman’s cockiness, Forest Whitaker’s kind nature. Looking at the film for the first time for a while I was also struck by how good Elizabeth McGovern is here. It’s not at all a showy role like the others and the good girl nature of the part is probably the weakest on the page but the actress imbues her scenes with a genuine sense of humanity without making a big thing out of it. In my imaginary 40s version I kept picturing Joan Bennett playing this part. Scott Wilson as Johnny’s one friend has a nice speech about his own desperation early on that helps make him a fully fleshed out character in just a few scenes and Peter Jason, familiar from both Walter Hill and John Carpenter films (his big screen debut was in Howard Hawks’ last, RIO LOBO) plays a boss at the shipyard where Johnny gets a job. In 48 HRS he’s the bartender at Torchy’s getting harassed by Eddie Murphy. Here, he gets full on pistol-whipped by Ellen Barkin. It’s a certain kind of filmic immortality, that’s for sure.
The issue isn’t whether or not Pacino was wrong, that doesn’t matter. And, yeah, he would have been amazing playing this role. The final version of JOHNNY HANDSOME is flawed and as much as I love just watching these actors embody these rolls in a way that is near exhilarating as a full story maybe it doesn’t entirely connect on an emotional level in the end. I don’t know if that connects so the last image we see before the end credits roll doesn’t register. The film isn’t about a lost friendship so much as booze-soaked tour of a New Orleans drenched world courtesy of a sometimes master director enacted by actors I love in which people don’t change no matter what, just frozen in themselves like a photographed carried in our back pocket until it’s falling apart. That’s a part of our dreams of the better person we’d like to be, the one we know we never will. And if that’s not noir, or at least a small slice of what it should be in the dead of night, I don’t know what is.

Monday, February 10, 2014

In A Couple Of Seconds

No way that I’ll ever forget being jolted awake in the early morning hours of January 17, 1994 when the Northridge quake hit. Even though I was living in North Hollywood at the time, not that far from the epicenter, I was lucky as far as things went so just about the most interesting part of my own experience is that I had returned from an extremely cold and snowy visit back in New York, arriving to something considerably more treacherous as it turned out. Much of that week is a blur to me now and as these things go, because I’m very strange, one of my most vivid recollections is of what came about a few days later when I went to the movies in Westwood at the National Theater (I really miss that place—demolished in ’08 and maybe now destined to be remembered as ‘the theater in ZODIAC’) for opening night of the Richard Gere-Sharon Stone drama INTERSECTION. Actually, my recollections aren’t really that strong. I’m pretty sure I must have worked at my job in Brentwood (the Brown-Goldman murders less than five months away at that point) and then driven over to Westwood that evening. I don’t remember specifics. I don’t remember what I might have had for dinner or even if I got popcorn. I wish I did, just like I wish I’d kept other pieces of time in the brain to remember what I actually did on certain days back then but those things leave you as time goes on.
I do recall that the theater was surprisingly crowded and there was an unmistakable feel in the air of relaxation as if everyone was relieved and thinking, “We made it through the week, now let’s go see a movie.” And it probably didn’t even matter what that movie was, which considering the movie in question may have been just as well. Maybe some people there even expected as much—directed by Mark Rydell and originally scheduled for a Christmas release INTERSECTION had been pushed back to the dead of January, never a very good sign, and what we got to see that night pretty much confirmed those suspicions. Ultimately it didn’t do very well, coming in third that weekend, behind the long running MRS. DOUBTFIRE and PHILADELPHIA, winding up with a gross of $21 million. Revisiting the film now my reaction hasn’t changed all that much from what it was then and it’s not so much an outright bad film as simply one that doesn’t really connect. It ends with more of a shrug than any real emotional response but it is interesting to look at again as not only a reminder of what I went to see that night long ago as well but also as being a relic of the nineties when major studios were still making star vehicles like this. I suppose lots of films from the nineties are going to look like relics sooner or later. Maybe they are already.
Speeding along on a country road, successful architect Vincent Eastman (Richard Gere) is suddenly about to be involved in a multi-car collision. Seconds before impact, portions of his life flash before his eyes, much of it having to do with wife Sally (Sharon Stone) who he’s on the outs with and journalist Olivia Marshak (Lolita Davidovich) who he’s leaving her for. As he’s faced with the two woman coming together at the opening of one of his new buildings he’s faced with the choice between the two of them that he ultimately has to make so his life can move forward.
There are a few notable points about INTERSECTION but even those aren’t really all that interesting. One might be that it’s the rare Hollywood film shot in Vancouver that actually says it’s Vancouver, not Seattle or elsewhere, and I’ll give it points for utilizing quite a bit of scenery in the areas surrounding the city. Additionally, the film is director Mark Rydell’s fourth collaboration with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, presumably after they met when Rydell acted in THE LONG GOODBYE (and if you haven’t seen their first, CINDERELLA LIBERTY, go and take care of that) and also features Sharon Stone right in the middle of her post-BASIC INSTINCT hot streak, presumably trying to play against type by taking the role of the unhappy wife instead of the flashier part of the other woman. But ultimately INTERSECTION (screenplay by David Rayfiel and Marshall Brickman based on the 1970 French film LES CHOSES DE LA VIE) is a movie where not very much happens, as indicated by the synopsis above, and even what does occur onscreen never has the metaphorical significance that the film clearly is going for.
There’s not much about it that I believe at all beyond being a movie where people have flashy movie jobs like architect and magazine columnist while wearing nice clothes and living in nice houses—the sort of people who wear expensive sweaters, although I’ll admit to being fond of the suit Richard Gere wears through the ‘present day’ portion of the flashback. It promises to be a high-powered drama about choices and fate as time moves forward and cherishing every moment but in spite of all the flash and promises it just turns out to be not much of anything, a 52 pick-up game of flashbacks divided between the present (mostly over the course of a single day before the accident) and various key events in the main character’s relationships with the two women, waffling about fully committing to Olivia, still somewhat attached to his wife, all meant to detail the path this man has taken but not much really connects. More than anything Gere’s architect seems like a guy who’s bored, unhappy because his wife chooses to answer the phone when they’re alone together, caught in a structure that is both annoying and ineffectual—a few flashbacks come past the point when they still seem necessary, so they come off as marking time while waiting for the accident to occur, and if you arranged everything in chronological order it wouldn’t be much more compelling either. None of these people do much of interest as they agonize through this drama, none of them warranting the film they’re the main characters of.
The blanks that get filled in aren’t enough, at least not enough to be satisfying. Stone’s Sally presumably turned him from the art student he once was into a successful architect who can make money in the business world she occupies, turning art into a commodity for rich people as part of their ‘corporation with a kid’ that their perfect marriage really is. There’s never much of a pulse, not even during the moments when characters are laughing about something so when Davidovich’s co-workers jokingly bow to her when she walks into a staff meeting it all just seems phony. Maybe the French version works better—maybe this is the sort of thing that works best in that language. The script seems to indicate that the other woman, the free spirit of the two, is supposed to be younger but the two women look roughly the same age anyway (Stone, who is presumably playing older, has only three years on Davidovich) so that element is lost. There are hints, intentionally or not, that things aren’t going to go much better with her and that her immaturity means he’s just going to wind up in the same place he started, like when she suggests going upstairs at a party to privately make love like he did once upon a time with his wife, but not enough is done with this and she’s too inconsistently written anyway. Much as the film is almost about its own flashback structure more than anything the story is still pretty thin and already feels like it’s reaching the climax at the hour mark but there are still more flashbacks to go (including a ridiculously ‘cute’ charades scene with Gere and Davidovich that has to be some sort of low point) as well as the business involving the accident and the visions of fantasy afterwards leading to the twist conclusion. The story wants to feel incomplete the way life is sometimes but instead just drifts off so when the credits roll there’s not a feel of the tragedy of it all so much as a shrug where you think, well, I guess that’s the whole thing. “That’s it?” Davidovich asks Gere when he describes his life, waiting for the horrible story that isn’t coming. “I must have missed something.” That’s all fine and everything. It’s perfectly believable, actually, but it doesn’t do us much good.
Nothing about INTERSECTION is really all that wrong but it just kind of drifts away in the end, not having very much impact at all. A few scenes connect briefly—Martin Landau talking about his dead wife, a post-separation Stone shooting down Gere immediately when he tries to say something nice to her. A waitress played by Suki Kaiser who serves Gere at a café asks aloud why they don’t all move to Arizona to get away from the Vancouver rain and I wonder what her story is since there’s not much else of interest to focus on. For that matter, since some of the scenes almost seem overly dramatic like a film being shot in a film a more compelling story might be a DAY FOR NIGHT style film about the making of this sort of film and what happens between the three leads. Now that’s a film I’d like to see. The big flashback scene where Gere breaks it off with Stone is pretty good all things considered, maybe even the best moment in the film and it all drifts off in a way that feels somewhat believable but the stifling feel of what leads to the eventual eruption here is emblematic of the film as well. Not enough is spoken, not enough is there. Not enough is anything, although the score by James Newton Howard features a fair amount of harmonica which is rather soothing in a 70s sort of way. Even Gere’s encounter with a little girl late in the film that’s meant to give him his ‘answer’ still doesn’t feel as emotional as it should although the way she says “Bye” to him when she leaves is awfully cute. The film means well and I can feel director Rydell trying to bring emotion to the agony the characters are all going through. Gere’s character buys an antique clock at an auction and repeated shots of a ball bearing moving through the specialized mechanisms indicating the passage of time and fate as if it’s somehow watching over everyone while waiting for him to make his big decision clearly are supposed to mean everything. But it doesn’t .You can’t stop what’s coming, went the line in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and that would seem to be part of the theme of INTERSECTION as well. But, really, the clod shouldn’t have been driving his vintage Mercedes so fast in the first place.
Some of that Vancouver area scenery is awfully nice, especially when Richard Gere endlessly drives around during the last half hour, I’ll give it that much. The age of Richard Gere’s character is my age so make me even more depressed than I already am, why don’t you. As for the performances, everyone somehow seems a little uneasy together in the frame too much of the time. Gere is playing the script so since the script is dreary, his character is dreary, spouting off things like “Norman, I loved the elevation!” to remind us that he’s a high-powered architect (based on some dialogue he’s apparently a famous architect, which is probably George Costanza’s dream) and constantly trying to remind us that he’s torn between these two women down to his very soul. Sharon Stone, trying to go full on Grace Kelly, maybe comes off best and her performance becomes more interesting the more I watch it, noticing elements she’s adding that allow her to bring shadings to this thinly written character. Lolita Davidovich has the right sort of energy but the erratic nature of her part means that there isn’t a full sense of life from the character almost as if she’s getting contradictory suggestions from either the script or the director so, again, it’s as if something is missing. Martin Landau has a nice scene early on but then disappears for most of the running time while Jennifer Morrison (billed here as Jenny Morrison) of the hit ABC series ONCE UPON A TIME plays the Eastman’s daughter. Incidentally, go and watch ONCE UPON A TIME.
If I told you that just as I was writing that last sentence Jennifer Morrison happened to walk by would you believe me? Probably not. But life is funny that way, causing your view of the world to sometimes be altered in just a couple of seconds, which is something I’ve realized many times in the past twenty years. To be honest, I’m trying to remember more details of that night at the National in Westwood but not much is coming to me, just like some of those days following the Northridge quake are now hazy to me as well. So much has changed since then. As for INTERSECTION, it’s a case of a film that only means something to me because of those distant memories that surround it. Which I suppose is what the film is about as well and while that film may not mean much of anything in the end I’m not sure if all that stuff surrounding it means anything either. But I do have those memories, cloudy as a few of them are. So they must mean something.