It may have been Alfred Hitchcock who most eloquently deconstructed the art of film storytelling when he coined the term “MacGuffin,” which he defined as the object or idea that everyone in a movie is most concerned with, but which has little or nothing to do with what the movie is about. As Hitchcock described it, the MacGuffin drives a story, but it is not the storythe true story is the fascinating human behavior that the MacGuffin-quest produces. All the cinematic sleight of hand that takes place (plot twists, double-crosses, chase scenes, what-have-you) is designed to keep the audience entertained and paying attention while the real story is told.
At least that’s the theory. All too often, the audience is left in the hands of filmmakers with no story to tell, who juggle for the sake of juggling and entertain without purpose (e.g., Twister). Or worse, we’re cornered by directors who have a story to tell but get so hooked on the gimmicks of plot that they lose sight of what they’re supposed to be plotting (e.g., Mission: Impossible).
The latter scenario describes Phil Joanou’s film Heaven’s Prisoners. Joanou’s movie (based on the acclaimed detective novel by James Lee Burke) has been finished and sitting on New Line Cinema’s shelf since fall of 1994gathering dust because it is slow and long, and the only way it could’ve been improved is if Joanou had scrapped the whole film and started over with a new, less dense, script. Still, there is a real story buried amongst its many (too many) frames.
Heaven’s Prisoners stars Alec Baldwin as Dave Robicheaux, a New Orleans cop on permanent leave from the force. Years of hard drinking and violent behavior have made him a fearsome detective and a spiritually vacant man. As the film opens, he has retreated to a passive life on the bayou, running fishing charters with his wife (played by Kelly Lynch). Then a MacGuffin lands on his heador, more accurately, in the water 100 feet from his head. A small plane, carrying illegal aliens and piloted by a DEA agent, crashes into the Bayou, killing everyone aboard save one nameless Latin girl.
The Robicheauxs decide to take care of the child, but fearing for her safety, Dave returns to New Orleans to learn more about the mystery surrounding her accident. He visits old haunts, old friends and old nemeses, including an alcoholic stripper (played unconvincingly by Mary Stuart Masterson), a dense thug (played with welcome gusto by Eric Roberts), and the thug’s coquettish wife (played by TV’s Teri Hatcher). Robicheaux’s investigation draws the attention (and threats) of the mob and the DEA, both of whom revive Robicheaux’s dormant tempestuousness. As a man of action, Dave Robicheaux cannot abide threats; when he is pushed, he pushes backwith devastating results to his foes and to himself.
Robicheaux’s battle against his true, macho drunk nature is fascinating to observe, particularly when he begins to lose the battle. Refreshingly, the film does not traffic in absolutesperhaps Robicheaux has irreparably backslid, perhaps not. And perhaps it wouldn’t be the worst thing if he did give in to his darker instincts: A scoundrel may be the only one who can get results in a sweltering Louisiana climate where evil spreads like mildew.
Despite this intriguing exploration of characterand the detailed bayou and New Orleans locations that Joanou uses effectively as its backdropHeaven’s Prisoners suffers from an excess of plot twists. The DEA, the Mafia, illegal immigrationit’s all more information than Robicheaux’s story needs, and with Joanou taking time to explore all the plot points carefully, the film feels logy, exhausted.
It’s left to Alec Baldwin, who also produced Heaven’s Prisoners and chose this James Lee Burke character to make his own, to keep the movie on track. His Robicheaux strolls into dank bars and seedy rooms and gets things done, with a satisfying toughness that brings to mind Clint Eastwood’s William Munny in Unforgiven after his character has abandoned all pretense of nonviolence. Like Munny, Robicheaux pays a price for his actions. He gambles with his family and loses his wife, in a scene that has Baldwin pacing the room in crazed denial, touching a raw nerve that the actor has touched more than a few times in his career (most notably in Prelude to a Kiss).
The final shot of Heaven’s PrisonersRobicheaux curled up in bed with his new daughter, blankly reflecting on what he has gained and (most tragically) lostprovides a grace note that almost blesses the entire movie. Instead, it merely blesses Baldwin, who with one simple movement of his cool blue eyes can reveal more about behavior than all the contrived plots in filmdom. It is for Baldwin alone that Heaven’s Prisoners deserved to be dusted off and deserves to be seen. His Dave Robicheaux is a character worth exploring in future films, even though at the end of Heaven’s Prisoners Robicheaux seems destined for a troubling conclusionthat pain doesn’t always lead to redemption, only further pain.Noel Murray
The potent little B-movie Original Gangstas looks and sounds exactly like an artifact from the early 1970s, down to the grainy film stock and the Chi-Lites on the soundtrack. That actually works in the movie’s favor. At once a tribute to the blaxploitation genre and a lament for its legacy, Original Gangstas updates formula flicks like Truck Turner and Slaughter to contemporary Gary, Ind., where blaxploitation giants Fred (“The Hammer”) Williamson, Pam (“Coffy”) Grier, Richard (“Shaft”) Roundtree, Ron (“Superfly”) O’Neal, and Slaughter himself, Jim Brown, team up to rid their impoverished community of a vicious gang.
The movie’s interesting twist is that the heroes actually founded the marauding gang in their youtha sly way of acknowledging the backhanded triumph of blaxploitation films. For all the exposure the ’70s blaxploitation flicks afforded African-American actors, the most fiercely amoral of the movies deified pimps, killers and dealers. Many of these actors, among them Ron O’Neal, went from acclaimed stage careers in serious dramas to screen roles as jive-talking macks and pushers. The influence of these role models on contemporary gangsta culture is as direct as it is depressing. When the child of two of Original Gangstas’ heroes becomes the victim of the gang they helped create, the metaphor for blaxploitation filmmaking is unavoidablethe chickens coming home to roost.
The director, Larry Cohen, is implicated just as much: The hack auteur directed Williamson in Black Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem, two of the grimiest (and most entertaining) of the blaxploitation flicks. Nevertheless, Cohen stages the action scenes with trashy vigor, giving each star a chance to flex his or her muscle. Most welcome is the return of Pam Grier to a starring role. In the ’70s, Grier’s dignity and unabashed strength transcended her demeaning roles; when she knotted a halter top over her luscious curves and brandished a shotgun, her blazing self-confidence turned pinup fetishism into feminist iconography. She still deserves better partseven after 20 years, the film industry still isn’t sure what to do with a powerful African-American womanbut her fury remains gloriously undimmed. Her mano-a-mano slugfest with a street thug here has real go-for-broke intensityespecially when she pops the chump with a garbage-can lid.
Like the best of the blaxploitation movies, old and new, Original Gangstas works on two levels: as social commentary and as a kick-ass action flick. When the five heroes march side by side Magnificent Seven-style against the gang in the climactic gun-down, they’re taking up arms against their own Staggerlee mythos. As in the early ’70s, they can’t help it if they make guns look cool. But at least in Original Gangstas their weapons aren’t backfiring on an entire generation.Jim Ridley
Issues and Arsenic
Stacy Title’s The Last Supper is a better-than-expected black comedy with a nifty idea. Fed up with their own inability to act on their beliefs, a group of liberal grad students decide to better the world by inviting a different conservative bogeyman to dinner each weekfor poisoned cocktails. As happens frequently in satire, each character becomes a mouthpiece for exactly one ideological point of view. The conservative victims (who include Charles Durning, Jason Alexander and a chilling Bill Paxton) represent their specified evils and are dispatched to the flower bed, while the five liberals remain almost completely interchangeable. (They’re differentiated mainly by hobbies, which may in itself be a very subtle dig.)
Still, the ensemble of killers, which includes Cameron Diaz, Annabeth Gish, Courtney B. Vance and Jonathan Penner, performs with relish. And the movie is even-handedly nasty to both political camps. You can have fun trying to pinpoint the exact moment when the killers become more appalling than their victimswhich, for some viewers, will be the moment they appear onscreenor you can debate the movie’s hierarchy of social evils. Or you can argue whether the movie is a conservative fantasy of bleeding-heart corruption or a liberal self-critique. As comedies about the ethics of murder go, The Last Supper is neither as trenchant as Monsieur Verdoux or as funny as Kind Hearts and Coronets. But you’ll certainly enjoy the discussion on the ride home.Jim Ridley
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