It took me a while to make up my mind about Romeo Is Bleeding. It has quite a chestnut of an opening: a wasted-looking Gary Oldman stands behind the bar in a desolate desert saloon and tells us about Jack, a guy he once knew whose life had taken a bad turn. The bartender expects Jack to show up again any minute now, because he comes in every year on May 1 and December 1, and today is the former. A character's telling me a story about this guy he once knew seems a decidedly hokey way to begin the proceedings, until director Peter Medak moves us from the desert bar to New York, where we meet Jack, and see that he too is Gary Oldman.
Jack is a highly corruptible New York cop. His bad habits pile up until he seems like a watered-down version of Harvey Keitel's Bad Lieutenant. But Medak and writer Hilary Henkin work an interesting metaphor with Jack: the brown envelopes filled with the Mafia money he takes for his bad deeds go straight into a hole in his back yard. Jack can't talk about enjoying sex or drugs or money, only about "feeding the hole."
Still, there's nothing really new here, including the cultivated, world-weary don played by Roy Scheider. Romeo Is Bleeding only ups its ante when Lena Olin's Mona, the Russian hitwoman, appears, ready to do battle with Scheider's crime-lord for control of something. His empire, I suppose.
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Olin has gotten so much press for her over-the-top wickedness that when we finally see her in action, seducing poor, stupid Jack -- who is supposed to have her under lock and key -- it feels a little flat. Her character doesn't really take off until near the film's end, but she eventually does become a truly spectacular villain. In fact, her character finally commits the single most shocking act in movies since Michael Madsen's torture scene in Reservoir Dogs. It's all the more stunning for director Medak's light touch.
In its cold-blooded knowingness, Romeo Is Bleeding generally evokes Reservoir Dogs and fails in the comparison -- until the movie's final third, when Olin's character kicks in and Jack's sense of hard-earned loss becomes poignant. But the film does get there. Among recent neo-noirs, it's a little behind the soulful but neglected Hearts and Bones, but comfortably ahead of The Getaway.
Romeo Is Bleeding.
Directed by Peter Medak. Starring Gary Oldman, Lena Olin, Roy Scheider, Annabella Sciorra.