Abel Ferrara's movies combine self-conscious tawdriness with unconscious tawdriness. He's fascinated by self-destructive excess, by obsessive, addictive behavior, by characters who willfully wreck themselves with drugs and booze and sexual degradation. Like many filmmakers with an attraction to this subject matter--the early Scorsese, for instance--Ferrara insists that such behavior has a quasi-religious side, that it can lead one to a spiritual reawakening.
Ferrara's film Bad Lieutenant was a narrow but distinctly effective piece, because it illustrated this by no means fresh notion in cartoonish terms that were--intentionally, I assumed--blackly comedic. But his latest, Dangerous Game, takes itself with deadly seriousness, and is deadly dull as a result.
Bad Lieutenant worked because of its relentless artlessness; it was a blunt, piggy movie about piggishness, and by being funny (and having a humanizing performance by Harvey Keitel), it left a little chill. Dangerous Game, a thriller of sorts about a movie-within-a-movie (it's a lousy movie within a lousier movie), reverses the process. It's an artsy film, but it, too, is about piggishness, leaving the audience with no alternative but snide laughter.
Dangerous Game stars the bad lieutenant himself, Keitel, as--guess what?--a guy on the edge. This time he's Eddie Israel, a filmmaker struggling to complete a lurid domestic drama titled Mother of Mirrors (nudge, nudge). His leading lady is Sarah (Madonna), a popular star who's getting her first crack at a serious part. Eddie says that young girls emulate her, so presumably her popularity is along the lines of Madonna's own. His leading man is Francis (James Russo), an explosive, Ray Sharkey/Ray Liotta/James Russo type who appears to be dangerously unhinged.
We don't find out that Eddie is on the edge for a while. He just seems like the usual, flatteringly conceived character of a movie-director-within-a-movie: a harried but sincere artist trying to keep his childish actors happy and get his story on film. Sarah sleeps with Francis, apparently as an acting exercise, then she and Eddie drift into a seemingly affectionate affair. It's only when Eddie's adoring wife arrives in L.A. from New York, with their son in tow, that we begin to see that Eddie, though more in control than Francis, is also a boozer, a druggie and an obsessive womanizer.
Keitel gives an honest performance, but the role offers him neither the exaggerated breadth of the lieutenant nor much depth. He's simply not able to make this guy interesting. Russo's hamminess, which in other films has been intense and flamboyantly sexy, is here just shrill.
Amazingly, Madonna, who is pitiably Elvislike in her inadequacy when she tries to act in conventional roles (like last year's hilariously awful Body of Evidence), is quite good here. In fact, she's the film's best element--she masterfully plays the same "character" she played in Truth or Dare, and she's an endlessly lush camera subject.
Terrible though Dangerous Game is, it requires comment, because Ferrara is far from untalented. He directs the movie close in, with long, gruelingly maintained shots of considerable visual power. His use of shadows and dim light is highly skillful. If he would lavish his technique on a theme other than that unconvincing old wheeze about how stupid, joyless decadence can be spiritually transcendent (suppose it can--is it a path to transcendence anyone should aspire to?), he could make powerful thrillers. The workable raw materials were present for once this time, but the director has done nothing with them.
Perhaps Ferrara is trying to make a comment about moviemaking itself, about how people making a film will tolerate almost any degradation to, in the case of the director, realize his vision, and in the case of the actors and production staff, to be a part of that realization. Hence the criminal negligence, not to mention the misogyny, in the face of Francis' growing wackiness on the set--he actually rapes Sarah during a supposedly simulated rape scene, and he actually cuts her during a scene in which he's threatening her with a knife, and nobody, not even Sarah herself, puts a stop to it.
The trouble with this angle is that Eddie's movie, Mother of Mirrors, is obviously only a little less puerile and sophomoric than the movie it's wrapped in. The idea that a filmmaker would, for aesthetic reasons, deliberately put someone at mortal risk, much less that anyone would knowingly take that risk, for a dopey film moves Dangerous Game into the realm of satire. But Ferrara is having none of satire this time.
It's here--in the contrast of Bad Lieutenant's tone with that of Dangerous Game's--that Ferrara's vanity shows most clearly. If a working-class Joe, like a cop, wallows in revolting excess, he's a buffoon, and the movie a scathing dark comedy. But apparently, if a film director behaves the same way, he's a passionate sufferer, and the movie a hard-hitting tragedy.--M. V. Moorhead
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.