Thursday, February 07, 2008

Romeo Is Bleeding

Romeo Is Bleeding is a convoluted mess, a dispirited neo-noir that inspires no passion or suspense. The plot twists and turns and raises the stakes, but there's nothing recognizable at its core but recycled, worn archetypes of the film noir genre. The film provides no compelling reason to once again dredge up these femme fatales or the corrupt hero who brings about his own spiritual downfall. And, even watching it as a straight homage, it fails to recapture the spark or wit of the films that are its inspiration. As the histrionics climax and ebb, climax and ebb, over and over again over the course of one hour and fifty minutes, it's like watching a ghost of cinema past; what was once vibrant and sexy is here pale and withered, empty and lifeless.

Gary Oldman stars as Jack Grimaldi, a corrupt police Sargent who offers the mob information about protected witnesses in exchange for money. He's amassed a good deal of dirty money over the years, but has a crisis of conscience when one of his tip-offs leads to an off-camera bloodbath where the cops protecting the witness are also killed. Now he's not just an informant, but a cop-killer as well. Feeling that the mob has not lived up to their end of the bargain, he attempts to extract himself from the dirty dealings but finds he's (gasp!) in over his head. Then, Lena Olin shows up as an ambitious and nihilistic hit woman named Mona who's been marked for death by mob boss Roy Scheider (doing his best Kirk Douglas from Out of the Past impression). Mona (double gasp!) seduces Jack in order to secure his allegience in helping her escape with her life. This complicates Jack's relationship with his wife, his mistress, and the mob.

Like all noir-ish plots, this has the ingredients for a good, tawdry time at the movies where the audience feels a Puritanical glee at seeing a corrupt soul punished for his (and it's always his) ethical ambiguity and a concurrent delight in watching a man overcome seemingly omnipotent malevolent forces. But Jack never emerges as a relatable character or anything worth investing in, either for or against. He leads so many contrary lives--cop and mob informant, husband and philanderer--yet somehow there's nary a hint of danger that he'll be found out. There's not even a sneaky thrill at the outset that he's getting away with it. His affair is joyless, his mob relations are testy, and we never get to know his cop buddies. The only spark of joy in the film is when he hordes his money; his love for this growing pile of cash is the only relationship that connects. But later in the film, the movie asks us to believe that he really, really, truly, no-seriously-I-mean-it-this-time loves his wife (despite everything we've seen), and he abandons his money without so much a moment of hesitation. He comes off not as an anti-hero, but an anti-person, a vessel into which the film pours its plot.

Absent a main character, Romeo Is Bleeding also fails to find a tone that reflects the material. Rather, it's slow and moody, takes little delight in turning the screws on the duplicitous Jack, and, at times, even asks us to take his undoing seriously. It thuds along at a metronome-like pace, with no escalating rhythm or discernable tempo. The score's a distraction, too heavy-handed in its references to older noir scores. Even the shots of the film are disorienting; people in the same scene often feel like they're in different rooms.

Though, to be fair, some of that disorienting quality could be due to the acting. Oldman delivers a fun, theatrical-but-nuanced performance, yet he never really connects with any of the other performers. There's no chemistry between Jack and his wife, his mistress, or Mona. Even the wonderfully disarming Roy Scheider can't seem to penetrate the wall of Oldman's acting and forge a genuine relationship. Lena Olin is the only one besides Oldman who seems to be having any fun, but her performance is a cartoon--Jessica Rabbit playing a James Bond villain. Juliette Lewis, as the mistress, just looks like she's trying to keep up.

Romeo Is Bleeding's only redeeming feature is the lengths to which it goes in torturing its characters. It's gutsy to have a character remove an arm in order to serve the screenplay's labyrinthine plot or to have the unwitting hero forced to bury a man alive. A better film would have played with these moments more, found more absurdity in them, and used them for comedic purposes. And that may have been the intent with this project at one time. But if the movie's laughing at all, it's only a nervous, guilty laugh--a sexist joke from a misogynist, searching the crowd to see which fellas are with him.

Would Make a Good Double Feature Wtih: Angel Heart

Edited to Add: RIP Roy Scheider. May the curse of your living corpse haunt us all.


zora said...

yes - i remember really hating this movie, especially the lena olin character... it left me mildly flabbergasted, seeing how an obviously cold and calculating female could make a man make a complete fool of himself... is that really so? i hope not.

David Wester said...

I wish it weren't true myself.

SRI said...

Sounds like an interesting one! I think, just for interest, I will have to search it out. Thanks for the review.

Emma said...

Excellent film. Great performance by Gary and the direction is first rate. You do have written up a great review also and I really enjoyed reading it. Thanks for sharing.

Romeo Is Bleeding