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 Woman 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 NTC seductive Swedish actress Lena Olin, is the significant icon in "Romeo Is Bleeding," which opens today at the Charles. 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 ultraviolence, 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 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 vs. 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.
I suppose the agenda of "Romeo Is Bleeding" is obscurely feminist: It takes that most masculine of archetypes -- the cracked psycho killer -- and transfuses that bad boy into a female body. In other words, it's Oldman in the Doris Day part: He cries, he snivels, he stands in shocked paralysis; meanwhile, Olin is pure Cagney from "White Heat," tougher, smarter, more predatory and more sadistic. One of her prey she buries alive, while all but baying at the moon. Then she shoots the earth in which he lies, while Jack cowers in the foreground. It happens to be a great shot, but a great shot isn't a great movie.
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, goes 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.
"Romeo Is Bleeding"
Starring Lena Olin and Gary Oldman
Directed by Peter Medak
Released by Grammercy