fri 14/05/2021

Blu-ray: Romeo is Bleeding | reviews, news & interviews

Blu-ray: Romeo is Bleeding

Blu-ray: Romeo is Bleeding

Peter Medak's neo-noir is let down by genre clichés

Gary Oldman as Jake Grimaldi and Lena Olin as Mona Demarkov

The problem with much neo-noir is that it’s ersatz – too self referential for its own good. Peter Medak’s noir is as dark as it gets, but the hell he portrays is a shade too knowing, tainted with irony and excess.

The problem with much neo-noir is that it’s ersatz – too self referential for its own good. Peter Medak’s noir is as dark as it gets, but the hell he portrays is a shade too knowing, tainted with irony and excess.

Romeo is Bleeding (1994) showcases a slimline and youthful Gary Oldman. He's always good on screen, here as Jack Grimaldi, a cop so bent that he hardly remembers what it is to be straight. His opponent is the best thing in the movie: Swedish actress Lena Olin as a ruthless and sizzlingly sexy hit-woman. Medak is good at erotic tension, and the scenes in which the über-sadistic hired killer lures the bent cop to his downfall between her thighs – predictably decked out in stockings, suspenders and plenty of lace – are very well done, but never quite sure whether they should be horror, soft porn or fun.

As you'd expect with neo-noir, there's a voice-over from our hero, a reprise of the classic tone of world-weary disillusion that characterises the genre. Maybe we’ve just been fed too many hommages to '40s cinema: it feels a little tired and predictable. To its credit, the film is beautifully shot by Dariusz Wolski. There are well-crafted crane and tracking shots and a very tactile sense of New York’s seedier side. The lighting is dramatic, never relying on the natural hand-held look present in much American crime cinema of the '60s and '70s. The soundtrack by Mark Isham, jazzy with a trumpet reminiscent of Miles Davis’s classic music for Louis Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold, creates atmosphere but in a way that feels a little too labored, a stylistic nod rather than something more naturally fitting.

Medak’s amoral killer Mona Demarkov is a precursor of Villanelle in Killing Eve, another script written by a woman, in this case Hilary Henkin. Both hit-women, with a close-to-cliché Slavic background, are revenge figures, determined to put men in their place. Unlike Phoebe Waller-Bridge's dark but playful series, Medak’s film cannot quite make up its mind between grand-guignol comedy and something much darker. The blood-spatter factor is almost there for laughs, and yet, this remains a dark and melancholy film.

The problem with style in movies is that it doesn’t take long for it to become little more than stylish: surface at the expense of content. There are good actors in the film, but the characters are not in themselves sufficiently interesting to engage real interest, let alone emotion. In Polanski’s Chinatown, another neo-noir film by a Jewish director of Eastern European origin, Jack Nicholson’s detective Jake holds the film together because his part is a totally believable and brilliant creation from screenwriter Robert Towne. Medak’s Jack doesn’t have the same depth, in spite of Gary Oldman’s undeniable aura. The key to a movie's excellence lies often in the writer.

Noir, whether "neo" or the real thing, is one of those American cinema genres – like the Western – that mirror the USA’s realities as well as its fantasies. With noir, there’s money, violence, power and sex. There’s plenty of that in Romeo is Bleeding, but the flawless craft with which it’s made is let down by a story that fails to go beyond an exquisite exercise in genre, a roller-coaster ride in which the thrills are for effect, rather than evoking the tragic feel that haunts the classics of these tales of darkness.

This good-looking HD version of the film is accompanied by a 43-minute interview with Peter Medak, who escaped from Hungary at the time of the 1956 revolution. He is a director who should be better-known and has consistently made good films in Hollywood and Europe for over 50 years.

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