In the grand tradition of noir, la Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, Romeo Is Bleeding is narrated by a hero who is a hopeless sap--his buddies refer to him at one point as "you dumbest of all fucks." This particular DOAF is Jack Grimaldi (Gary Oldman), a New York cop who picks up the occasional 65 grand by letting the mob know where an Organized Crime Task Force is hiding out informants.
Needless to say, Jack's luck runs out quickly. One of his dropped dimes results in the death of several federal agents as well as their witness. Jack is then assigned to deliver the killer, a vicious, sexually avid Russian hit person named Mona (Lena Olin) to the feds, and when Mona gives him the slip, he receives orders from the mob boss (Roy Scheider) to kill her. Jack spends the rest of the film in dire peril of a) being killed by the mob, b) being tortured and killed by Mona, and c) getting caught in his crimes by the law and his adulteries by his wife (Annabella Sciorra).
Romeo Is Bleeding wants to be a wild, blackly comic gangster fantasy. It has the requisite empty streets in which characters can commit abominations witness-free, and it has the requisite stupid behavior that lacks even the practical, morally neutral logic to which one presumes even criminals are subject, but which is terribly hard-boiled and knowing. It's a load of rubbish, really, but since screenwriter/producer Hilary Henkin and director Peter Medak haven't set out to make anything higher than rubbish, they can't necessarily be faulted for this. But on the level of entertaining rubbish, the film is only sporadically successful. Medak, once of The Ruling Class and the moody ghost story The Changeling, but latterly of crime sagas like The Krays and Let Him Have It, is no genius, but even he has seen better hours than this. The pacing and editing rhythms are heavy and slack, exactly the opposite of what was called for.
Not that Hinken's frustratingly digressive script isn't also a large part of the problem. She seems to consider dialogue which hammers home the atmosphere of predatory angst more important than that which might lend clarity to the plot. The actors are to some extent scuttled.
Oldman, prodigiously gifted fellow though he is, just seems perplexed. For us to have any deep concern for Jack, he would have had to be something other than a DOAF. While Sciorra and Juliette Lewis (as Jack's put-upon mistress) both do well enough, they aren't in a position to make much of a difference, and Scheider, who has the most tired and clichd lines, recites them tiredly.
But then there's Lena Olin. She's a smashing actress who could be a smashing star, if only she weren't so difficult to cast in the kind of weak-tea roles that popular film offers to women. As the love interest to Hollywood pretty-pans in Havana and Mr. Jones, she was miserably served; as Mona--a relatively small part--she muscles Oldman out of the spotlight and serves herself, and in so doing, she single-handedly makes Romeo Is Bleeding worth seeing.
Mona is not, as written, a superb exercise in villainous characterization. She doesn't say anything especially witty or even eloquent, she doesn't have the texture of a sympathetic streak, and only once--while faking her own death--does her scheming rise to the level of spectacular cruelty which marks a great screen rotter.
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But Olin's performance makes up for any deficiencies in the writing, particularly during scenes of violence. Mona is the least cool of all assassins--when she's in the midst of bloodshed, she roars with deep, happy, aroused laughter; when she's in pain or peril or rage or pleasure, she yowls like a rabid wolf. She's a deranged, inhuman death-force, and what's most shocking is how commanding her sexuality is. She transcends, with no help from the script, the campy-naughty sexiness of, say, a beautiful James Bond villainess, and touches a level of animal eroticism that is disturbing precisely because, in the context of the movie, it is not repulsive.
Also on the gangster beat this week is Sugar Hill, starring Wesley Snipes as a Harlem drug dealer. As in Carlito's Way and Tequila Sunrise and who knows how many others, the hero is a classy, glamorous gangster who's decided he wants to go straight. But the powers that be, including his unstable older brother and partner (the hammy, twitchy Michael Wright) don't want him to. Like Romeo Is Bleeding, this is familiar turf, but unlike Romeo, Sugar Hill has no leavening originality comparable to that of Olin's performance. It's a painfully dull and talky picture.
Snipes is still a little stiff when he plays heroic roles (he's far better in character parts), but he's learned to use his stiffness as poise and bearing, and he's reasonably strong here. There are also good performances by Abe Vigoda as Snipes' rueful supplier, Clarence Williams III as Snipes' broken-down junkie father, and Ernie Hudson as a failed boxer turned smooth, sinister dealer. The lush cinematography, by Bojan Bazeli, is beautiful to look at, if a little inappropriately so.
But the story moves forward, when it does, only as far as is necessary to get to the next patch of metronomically paced monologues, many of which inspired derisive hoots from the audience with whom I saw the film. Obviously, screenwriter Barry Michael Cooper and director Leon Ichaso saw Sugar Hill as high tragedy, but what ended up on screen was earnest, elephantine melodrama.