Violent Screen: A Critic's 13 Years on the Front Lines of Movie Mayhemby Stephen Hunter
Baltimore Sun film critic Stephen Hunter is an unrivaled master of his craft. This extraordinary collection includes the best of Hunter's movie reviews, taking aim at the 100 most important (or notorious) violent films released since 1982. With an incisive, machine-gun style of writing, Hunter pulls no punches when he bashes Blue Velvet, Tombstone, and Legends of the Fall. And he doesn't hold back in his praise of The Wild Bunch, GoodFellas, and Reservoir Dogs. Commenting on movies and society, Tarantino, Stone, and Peckinpah, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sly Stallone, and Glenn Close, Hunter cuts right to the bone in exposing our flaws, fantasies, and flat-out love affair with blood and gore. His reviews are classics, and this collection is like a straight shot of pure adrenaline -- an electrifying jolt of truth and insight no moviegoer can ignore.
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Violent ScreenA critic's 13 years on the front lines of movie mayhem
By Stephen Hunter
Bancroft PressCopyright © 1995 The Bancroft Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFilm Noir
"All hail sleaze and evil"
RESERVOIR DOGS December 25, 1992
The boys are back in town — and how. "Reservoir Dogs," Quentin Tarantino's astonishing debut feature, appears to be set in a theme park called Testosteroneland, where nature isn't only red in tooth and claw, it's black as the heart of man and dank as any rag-and-bone show of the human spirit.
Yet its first astonishment is that in contrast to the relentless violence of the material, the movie itself is flashy, slick, giddy, audacious. It's a movie made by a man who has seen too many movies and can regurgitate technical credits from forgotten '50s B gangster melodramas with the best film nerds in America. The overarching sensibility is the showoff's: Everything is studiously placed for maximum sensation. It's the "Citizen Kane" of the gag reflex.
Of course, it's hopelessly immature. Tarantino is 29 but seems much younger: The film is one of those pulpy endorsements of nihilism that ends up with just about everybody in the movie, and several poor souls in the first rows of the theater, on slabs. It has to be made by a man who has never seen anybody die except in movies. Yet at the same time it's inconveniently dazzling — driven, beautifully made and completely wacko at once. It's pure outlaw art.
Tarantino's subject — that is, besides B movies and his own damned precociousness — is the honor among thieves and the lack of it among policemen. It basically takes place in a single setting, with flashbacks, as the surviving members of a robbery gang gather in a warehouse and try to hash out what happened in a bungled job in a wholesale diamond exchange that left half of them and dozens of square johns and cops dead in downtown Los Angeles.
The movie is radically structured, after the fashion of Kubrick's first film, "The Killing," another famous heist movie but one in which the heist was actually shown. Tarantino's glitziest stroke is never to show the main event: He backtracks in time and point of view half a dozen times, showing what led up to it and what happened after it, but the actual raid itself goes undramatized.
The robbers are a hyper-masculine crew of tattooed tough guys who dress like Blues Brothers and carry — what else? — .45s. Each is given a color code name by "Joe," the leathery old mastermind (Lawrence Tierney, who looks as if he could chew his way out of Alcatraz). Yet as hypercharged and kinetic as "Reservoir Dogs" is, it keeps stopping for riffs and it's only halfway through when one realizes that, under the torture scenes, the gunfights, the screams of a wounded, bloody man who slowly dies on screen for about 97 minutes, the movie is really a comedy.
Tarantino writes pointed, vivid comic solos that literally halt the movie in its tracks and take on a life of their own, like performance pieces. The weaselly Steve Buscemi, as Mr. Pink, is the author of many of these (Buscemi is a performance artist, so possibly he's incorporating some of his own material). At one point, he breaks up a tense planning meeting with a five-minute kvetch on the agonies of being code-named "Mr Pink"; in another, he contributes a cracked, inane disquisition on the absurdity of tipping.
But the competing centers of authority in the film are Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), who is a "responsible thief," and Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), who is a psycho killer. The two seem to struggle for control of the aftermath, as they attempt to figure out whether one of their own is an undercover cop. Meanwhile, Mr. Orange (the British actor Tim Roth, who, amazingly, played a Cockney contract killer in Stephen Frears's "The Hit," yet here seems as American as tacos) lies bleeding to death on the floor.
It is Madsen who shuffles through the film's most controversial moment, cutting the ear off a captured policeman while doing a hipster's jig to the tune of a piece of 70s fluff called "Stuck in the Middle with You." The scene is horrible to watch, contrasting psychotic power with utter helplessness in a dance of pure sadism, but in fact it's so outrageous, like an Ice-T song, that what it elicits is hilarity, not outrage.
ROMEO IS BLEEDING April 22, 1994
Some months ago, I received a letter from a man who shall go nameless, telling me that he was sure I was right about a particularly loathsome movie called "The Real McCoy" (Kim Basinger as a bank robber), but that he would see it anyway.
"You see," Mr.——confided, with what must have been a nervous little giggle, "I simply adore Strong Women films!"
Well, Mr.——, have I got a movie for you!
Mr.——, meet Mona Demarkov. Mona, don't you think Mr. ——could use some discipline? Possibly it would do to tie him up, knock out his teeth and shoot off his toes? Or possibly, Mona dear, you would enjoy cutting an ear off? Mr.——, stop that squirming now! You adore strong women, remember?
Mona, played at full toot boogie by the heretofore sedately seductive Swedish actress Lena Olin, is the significant icon in "Romeo Is Bleeding." In fact, she's the only reason for seeing the movie, which is only alive when she's going nuts with a Ruger or kicking the stuffing out of whatever poor guy gets in the way.
Femme fatale? This woman's a femme Armageddon!
"Romeo Is Bleeding" revels in its own trashiness. It aspires to join that small circle of near-outlaw works set on the grimy edges of film noir, along with "Reservoir Dogs" and "True Romance" — defiant champions of ultra-violence, campy outrageousness and dime-novel nihilism. Alas, it's nowhere near as good as those two, but it has a certain zany charm.
The "hero" — hero being a relative term here — is a New York detective named Jack Grimaldi, who makes Harvey Keitel's "Bad Lieutenant" look like Mr. Rogers. It does nobody any good, however, that Jack is played by one of the most talented and yet least interesting actors around, Gary Oldman. Oldman has extraordinary technical skills, yet whatever it is that the camera loves to record in an actor's presence, he hasn't got it.
Anyway, when the movie opens (it's actually a flashback in form, as a chastened but ruined Jack recalls his fall), Jack is playing both sides — the NYPD and the Mob — against the middle, and he's got a potful of money in the backyard to prove it. His personal life is equally an issue of equipoise, with a wife (Annabella Sciorra) in one corner and a mistress (Juliette Lewis, in yet another trampy role) in the other.
It all comes apart when he's asked to bodyguard the recently captured Mona. Mona quickly seduces him into setting her free and then declares war on the Mafia boss (Roy Scheider) who set her up, at the same time involving poor Jack in the game in ways he's not quite clever enough to figure out.
This is one of those cases where the villain — Mona — is so overpowering that she seems to drain the power from all around her. She's so titanic that the movie, the characters, the whole plot go away; nobody can stand up to her, not in the story and not in the film. Even director Peter Medak, who once shepherded wild boy Peter O'Toole through "The Ruling Class," seems a little afraid of her and backs off.
In the end, only Mona remains. For Mr.——-, that surely is enough; as for the rest of us, I have my doubts, though I'd appreciate it if you didn't tell Mona.
THE LAST SEDUCTION January 20, 1995
"The Last Seduction" certainly bears out the biblical injunction that the last shall be first: It's the first good movie of the year. It may be the first good movie of last year. It's an archly ironic film noir that whirls along like a dervish on shore leave, teasing its own conventions exactly as it fulfills them.
It's of the noir subset No. 7A — the femme fatale — built around a beautiful, predatory woman who has no moral compass, deploys her body as a lethal weapon, and uses the weaker sex as one might use tissue: to soak up fluids and to dispose of. Linda Fiorentino, briefly big years ago after "Vision Quest," is big all over again as sultry, leggy Bridget Gregory, a New Yorker married to a weak-willed physician (Bill Pullman) whom she's bullied into selling pharmaceutical cocaine to street hoods. Profit: $750,000.
But Bridget is too large to remain married to a nervous piker like Pullman's Clay, particularly when he briefly rebels and smacks her in the mouth. One of Fiorentino's great accomplishments here is that she really makes you feel her relish for the damage she's doing, and the pleasure she takes in the power of her own charisma. There's not a quiver of ambivalence anywhere in her: "I am bitch," she says in this performance, "hear me roar." For smacking her, she punishes her husband by walking out with the $750,000. What's he going to do, call the cops?
Actually, he calls a private detective, as the situation is somewhat urgent. Each week he can't pay back a loan shark, he gets a finger broken, and when he runs out of fingers, the goons will probably break something bigger, like a neck. She knows this. It's part of the joke.
Bridget sets up in western New York, a rural town called Beston for which the "Big City" is Buffalo, while she figures out her next move. Sitting in a bar on her first night, her next move walks in: dewy-eyed, blond hunk Mike Swale (Peter Berg), a self-hating small-towner who is attracted to her exactly as he is frightened of her. It's not much of a match — the spider woman and the boy fly. When Bridget rivets him with her dark eyes and gropes him under the table, he melts like a chocolate soldier in a microwave. "You're the designated——," she tells him, her idea of a romantic line.
In fact, at heart the mechanism of the film is its inversion of romantic ideals. The men — Mike and even mildly forgiving Clay — are true romantics, the clingy, nurture-needing, valentine-sending, battered-husband types. They look on Bridget and her beauty and cogitate sweet feelings of yearning and togetherness. She looks on them and sees ... smack, smack, chomp, chomp ... free lunch. Her great weapon is that love is a complete con to her. She feels nothing for anybody but herself and can therefore manipulate like a chess master, laughing to herself as she does it.
This same contempt relates to geography, too. Isolated in Beston, she's like Attila in a day-care center. Everywhere she sees nothing but marks and fools who weren't tough enough to make it to New York. "There's a place for losers and quitters," she tells Mike. "It's called Beston."
John Dahl, who directed this film and is a specialist in noir (he also did "Red Rock West"), has a true feel for sexual tension at the heart of the melodrama. So overwhelming is Bridget, so cunning and darkly charismatic, that she truly becomes the movie. One can feel the snares being lovingly draped around poor, dim Mike, though the suspense mechanism is somewhat peculiar: Though Bridget is the point-of-view character, we never know her true agenda.
Eventually, the movie seems to lead into another area, as Bridget uses Mike's computer knowledge (he's a claims adjuster) to isolate a set of wealthy women whose husbands' credit records suggest they are keeping mistresses on the side. Bridget, who clearly has an entrepreneurial gift, sees a service she can offer to such people. But Dahl brings this offshoot back into the original story line in a convincing way.
The movie will remind many of "Body Heat," Laurence Kasdan's great film from 1981. It's not as good as "Body Heat," and the big secret that Bridget learns to give her total control over Mike turns out to be pretty ridiculous. The ending could have been stronger; one feels a mousetrap snapping closed at the end, not a chrome steel trap on ball bearings. But "The Last Seduction" seduces us, early.
BLOOD SIMPLE March 8, 1985
All hail sleaze and evil, hot blood, cold beer, murder, sex, Texas and Volkswagens.
These are the prime components of "Blood Simple," a stunning debut film from Joel and Ethan Coen (Joel directed, Ethan produced, both wrote). Made for $1.5 million by two guys who'd never even been on the set of a real movie before, the film shows how much can be done with brains instead of money, and talent instead of connections.
"Blood Simple" is, generically, a noir pastiche. It's a black, biting murder thriller that plays on — without ever really imitating — the conventions of the movie past. Those conventions — their high-water mark was late in the '40s — took the form of convoluted, beautifully filmed plots of guilt and violence, betrayal, anxiety in an ever-present vapor of fear. They were fatalistic, gloomy, weirdly kicky: Alienated men in scary cities of the night, trying to play the angles and getting creamed for their efforts.
"Blood Simple's" distance to these old noirs is one of the shrewdest things about it: It's neither an exercise in bogus nostalgia nor a crude recycling of old gimmicks. It never stoops to "quote" old sequences, except one forgivable lapse when Joel Coen slams a zoom in on Frances McDormand in shaky homage to his pal Sam Raimi, from whose "The Evil Dead" the shot was taken. That mistake aside, the movie uses atmosphere, a brooding sense of evil, imagery and ideas, not cliches. It feels old and new at once.
You might liken it to "Body Heat," another excellent noir pastiche, except that it's a good deal less sensual: The Coens like violence, not sex, and their movie derives its energy from its sudden bursts of physical damage, not its sexuality.
At the same time, it's extremely funny, cut to an exquisite, jokey rhythm (a horror-movie rhythm, actually) that prevents its ugliness and violence from acquiring the weight that would destroy it. It starts giddy and stays giddy.
But more important, it returns something to movies that has long been absent: cleverness. As young directors have taken over the business and mastered the technical aspects of movie-making, they seem to have forgotten the narrative. The Coens are a refreshing return to the days when plots had to make a kind of sense.
It's not that the movie is realistic; it's that, within the confines of its world and from the premise of its plot, everything that happens happens for a purpose. It's a tidy movie; the Coens set out the ingredients in the beginning and by the end, they've used everything and used it well. And yet it's also got the system of visual logic so beloved of other young directors that supplies an additional sinew of organization.
The situation is classic James M. Cain, calling up the wonderful sordidness of roadhouse squalor of the 1930s pulp-writer who, 30 years after he peaked, was finally recognized for the brilliant stylist he was.
Like Cain's "The Postman Always Rings Twice," we begin with a crummy but wealthy husband, Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya, familiar from a lot of TV roles), who owns a prosperous bar called "The Neon Boot" on some unspecified, seedy Texas highway. Marty's wife Abby (Frances McDormand) has left him, run off with Ray (John Getz), one of Marty's bartenders.
Marty — one of the movie's cleverest, subtlest strokes is that everybody, even his own wife, calls him by his last name — hires a sleazo private eye to follow the couple, then having confirmed their union, to kill them. But the private eye (M. Emmet Walsh) sees another possibility: Instead of killing the two, he kills — or seems to kill — Marty. And this is just in the first few minutes.
From this permutation of the fatal triangle gambit there unfolds a problem in devious human geometry of inordinate complexity, angles yielding to fresh angles and perspectives that are crazed to the point of surrealism yet austerely consequential to the prime stroke.
The central dynamic in the film is misunderstood information: Each of the characters misreads a crucial situation, and it is this misreading that sends them into such a collapsing gyre of destruction. Yet at the same time, the audience always knows more than they do, and can keep the story sorted out in ways they can't.
What impresses is the power of Joel Coen's eye. The movie is built around a series of riveting images. But more to the point, the pretty pictures have meaning in terms of the narrative: They're informed with ideas, they hold the movie together.
Here's an example. There comes a moment when Ray and Abby, standing in the front door of Ray's seedy little house, attempt to penetrate the confusions that have ensnared them. Suddenly — the image is extraordinary — a thrown newspaper hurtles through the air with the stunning shock of a darting bat; we see it approach before they do and we flinch; we see it hit the storm door window with a bang and we duck — a second before they do.
Excerpted from Violent Screen by Stephen Hunter Copyright © 1995 by The Bancroft Press. Excerpted by permission of Bancroft Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Missouri native Stephen Hunter (b. 1946) is an American novelist, essayist, and Pulitzer Prize–winning film critic. He is best known for the popular Bob Lee Swagger series of thrillers — featuring Vietnam War veteran and sniper Bob "the Nailer" Swagger — which led to the Earl Swagger and Ray Cruz spinoff series. The author of more than a dozen novels, Hunter has also published two collections of film criticism and a nonfiction book, American Gunfight.
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