The Bare Necessities
By Jim Ridley, Noel Murray, and Donna Bowman
SEPTEMBER 15, 1997: Recently, while watching a few minutes of the laughable Riverdance special on Channel 8, it dawned on me that a lot of audiences are only comfortable with dance when it's cloaked in aggression. In noise musicals like Riverdance and Stomp, the routines are rumbles and the dancers use steps as bludgeons--as if we'd think they were sissies if they moved for any other reason than to threaten each other. On the other hand, the dance scenes I've always loved in musicals, from Singin' in the Rain through Shall We Dance?, were motivated usually by desperation. They needed only a tongue-tied guy whose feelings were so intense that they seized control of his limbs.
A different kind of desperation drives the scruffy heroes of the hilarious British comedy The Full Monty to dance, but it's just as potent--and just as enthralling. The shut-down of a Sheffield steel mill has left dozens out of work, and if the workers don't get on the dole, petty scams and outright lies are the only keys to survival. Everything looks bleak until the enterprising Gaz (Robert Carlyle) whips up an outlandish scheme. Every woman digs the Chippendales shows that sashay through town, right? Gaz will go them one better. He'll turn his equally desperate mates into a troupe of male strippers--men who aren't afraid to show the ladies "the full monty."
The idea seems doomed, especially when the burly blokes strap on thongs and start shaking their booties--a sight that scores belly laughs every time. (As an audition piece, Serge Gainsbourg's lubricious "Je T'Aime...Moi Non Plus" has never sounded loonier.) The beauty of Simon Beaufoy's script is the way it makes the men's nutty decision not only believable but logical. As daft as the notion sounds, these characters' motivations are sound and often touching: They're protecting their kids, their homes--and with a refreshing lack of macho bluster, their masculinity. Baring it all starts to seem more brave than foolish. As show time approaches, the director, Peter Cattaneo, has us rooting for every member, no pun intended.
It helps that the actors--led by Carlyle, who has the young Cagney's brazen energy and roguish charm--are such a scroungy band of underdogs. As a stiff ex-foreman who pretends he still has a job, the veteran character actor Tom Wilkinson makes his gruff rigidity moving; Mark Addy scores as a pudgy pal driven to despair by his lack of self-respect. Child actor William Snape plays Gaz's wary son with just the right note of skepticism. The supporting actors and bit players all seem to have been rounded up in a pub crawl, and their blunt, eloquent faces only add to the movie's appeal.
HoodwinkedIn the mid-1930s, when America was in the throes of the Depression, New York City's vice lords carved up the metropolis into zones of operation. Lucky Luciano controlled prostitution, and Dutch Schultz ran illegal liquor; they shared the gambling interests. Meanwhile, dozens of small-time operators maintained niche markets in neighborhoods outside the purview of the criminal bosses. In Harlem, for example, a West Indian woman known as Madame Queen maintained a tight grip on the lucrative numbers racket.
Hoodlum retells the legend (based on fact) of a time when Schultz and Luciano attempted to commandeer Harlem's numbers game and run the Queen out. Standing against the interlopers--at great risk to himself and to his community--was Bumpy Johnson, a ruthless schemer who attempted to keep Harlem's crime ethnically pure by pitting Luciano and Schultz against each other.
Hoodlum has a great subject; too bad it's not a great film, or even a very good one. With the exception of Lawrence Fishburne, who plays Bumpy, the acting is either scenery-chewing or amateurish; Tim Roth's profane Schultz is the worst offender in the former category, while Loretta Devine's stereotypical sassy black mama anchors the latter. And though the cinematography by Frank Tidy is wonderfully atmospheric, his well-composed long shots are all but ruined by the impatient, choppy editing.
Director Bill Duke, whose films have ranged from the ridiculous (The Cemetery Club) to the sublime (Deep Cover) to somewhere in between (A Rage in Harlem), has to shoulder the blame for the film's general ineptitude. The incomprehensible action scenes and sluggish pacing are ultimately his responsibility.
He doesn't botch Hoodlum single-handedly, however. The script by Chris Brancato has insufficient scope for the story Duke wants to tell. The movie is rightfully focused on Bumpy, but it's too narrowly focused; by short-shrifting the screen time for Dutch and Lucky, we lose the larger context of crime in the city. For a crime film to work--be it The Godfather or Miller's Crossing--audiences have to know exactly who all the players are and what the stakes are. Otherwise, we don't understand why the crooks don't just shoot each other and be done with it. Hoodlum never tells us the rules.
Even worse, Brancato's screenplay seems to miss the enormous irony of Bumpy risking the lives of his people to ensure that his organization alone can prey upon their weakness for gambling. There is something cruelly heroic about Bumpy's vision: After all, who should control Harlem's rackets, if not the citizens of Harlem? But Hoodlum tends to play down the uglier side of the drama in favor of a weak romantic subplot between Bumpy and a pious nurse (Vanessa Williams). The nurse's token objections to the numbers, and to violence, exist only so that Bumpy and his crew can rebut them. This way, the filmmakers can reassure the audience that the story is about good versus evil, not evil versus greater evil.
The real story here is the continuing battle in serious action movies between empty, crowd-pleasing violence and uncompromising inquiry into human values. (This week's upcoming The Game should continue the struggle in an interesting way.) For the sake of blood and thrills, Duke and Brancato sell out a fascinating chapter in the history of America's racial conflict.--Noel Murray
BombthrowerLet me salute the single most politically radical movie to come out of Hollywood in 1997. It's called Fire Down Below. Go ahead, laugh until you rupture a kidney. Then show me another movie that says the Environmental Protection Agency is incompetent and criminally ineffectual; that says the EPA's officials are on the take from the very corporations they're supposed to police; that says the judicial system allows corporations to rape the land and poison its (poor, rural, expendable) inhabitants. Still laughing?
Wait, it gets better. The hero, renegade EPA agent Steven Seagal, finds that a Kentucky town is being destroyed by illegal toxic dumping. He suggests that the townspeople organize and fight the villain, a chemical tycoon played by Kris Kristofferson. (For once, the choice of villains isn't politically correct, it's just correct.) But Seagal can't get anywhere because the tycoon has bought off the police force. As for the local minister, he won't say anything because the tycoon gives his church money--and Kris' goons sing hymns in the congregation.
As for the singing, many major-label country artists turn up in cameos, almost always on the side of evil. Mark Collie and hit songwriter Alex Harvey play hired muscle. Travis Tritt shows up just long enough to sing for the bad guys. (The good guys hire Marty Stuart.) Let's see...the entertainment industry, the church, the police, and the government are all in the pocket of ruthless conglomerates, which use them to quash any kind of protest. Forty-five years ago, the people making this movie would've been blacklisted.
It was smart of Seagal and company to camouflage this bombshell as a routine action flick, but I wish they hadn't done such a thorough job. Apart from its politics and a couple of bone-jarring chase scenes, Fire Down Below is strictly business as usual, with characters and dialogue out of a '50s Western. There's also the obligatory mention of Deliverance, the only movie about the South anyone in Hollywood seems to remember. Natural talents such as Marg Helgenberger, Levon Helm, and Harry Dean Stanton transcend their stock roles, and Kristofferson is chiseling a late-career niche as a suave bad-ass, but many of the other actors (like Stephen Lang) aren't so lucky.
Seagal himself remains a curious presence. In his best movie, Under Siege, he used his tapioca voice, impassive features, and telescopic stare to great comic effect. You knew he could handle the action; you didn't expect him to be such a hilarious success as a Navy chef turned commando. In the awful On Deadly Ground, he was a humorless, self-righteous pain; with his stiff movements and jowly scowl, he could've been an Easter Island statue carved of Spam. Here he's somewhere in the middle. The contemptuous way Seagal swats a wimpy villain with a boxing glove--as if the guy isn't even worth slugging--is great. When he delivers his big message in church, though, he sounds like he's extemporizing a speech from jumbled note cards.
Of course, to call Fire Down Below the year's most radical mainstream release is faint praise. Like most movies with corporate villains, this one will rake in cash for a corporate giant--Time Warner, take a bow. And various magazines have questioned Seagal's own environmental commitment offscreen. Give the onscreen Steven Seagal credit, however, for fingering the right villains and delivering the appropriate punishment. If the gutless real-life EPA ever dished out a sentence like the one Seagal hands Kristofferson, the folks in Oak Ridge wouldn't need bottled water.--Jim Ridley
A Lunch Wagon Named DesireNovelist Roddy Doyle's "Barrytown Trilogy" arrived on film in 1991 with Alan Parker's The Commitments, a rousing crowd-pleaser with a toe-tapping soundtrack. When Stephen Frears took the helm of The Snapper in 1993, the box-office mentality vanished, replaced by a straightforward intimacy that found profane laughter among the Irish working class. The tone of this second film continues in The Van, in which Frears again interprets Doyle's story of perverse, irrational joy in a Dublin neighborhood as a series of small, telling scenes rather than as a high-concept crisis.
The van of the title is a broken-down food wagon at the center of a money-making scheme concocted by Bimbo (Donal O'Kelly) and his friend Larry (Colm Meaney). Both men have just spent a rough Christmas on unemployment, and as Ireland advances in the World Cup they foresee big profits selling fish and chips outside the pub in the interval. But Bimbo's desire to run a trim business clashes with Larry's devil-may-care, jester persona.
It's worth seeing The Van just for laughs, even if on the whole it's less hilarious than The Snapper. That film's outrageous humor has been replaced by a quieter, more introspective tone, where the travails of friendship are more important than slapstick. Frears has a fearless, unadorned style that meshes perfectly with his blue-collar material. He places his camera at eye level and surrounds it with the gaudy trappings of pub life and football fandom. The characters are so comfortable in this world, so much a part of its cheap utilitarian veneer, that the movie has a slice-of-life tone even as it tells a coherent story. We feel as if we're peeking at a real world, and we love its inhabitants for letting us in to see their worst moments as well as their best.
In retrospect, The Commitments, despite being far and away the most popular of the three movies, is an aberration. It immerses us in the glamour of performance without putting that thrilling but transient world in perspective. Frears has returned Doyle's characters to their real environment, and he finds just as much entertainment there, outside the spotlight, inside the hearts of confused, hopeful, living men.--Donna Bowman
Film & TV: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14
© 1995-99 DesertNet, LLC . Nashville Scene . Info Booth . Powered by Dispatch