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The Retro Review machine that is one of our Outposters, Wrenage, returns once again with his take on an entry in Gary Oldman’s back catalog that is frequently overlooked.

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Romeo Is Bleeding

I rented a VHS of Romeo Is Bleeding in 1994 after seeing The Professional. Oldman flashed so brightly in Luc Besson’s flick that I wanted to see more of him. Everyone agrees Oldman flashed brightly in The Professional, right?

What do I mean by everyone?

Romeo Is Bleeding made no impression on me then. Upon revisiting it, I remembered nothing about it. The beauty of this is that eventually, senility will render me able to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark again for what seems like the first time.

Romeo Is Bleeding was a bomb in 1993. It made $3.3 million off a $10 million budget. Film critics didn’t write the film many love letters either. Let’s take a look at what Roger Ebert had to say about the movie:

“Romeo Is Bleeding is an exercise in overwrought style and overwritten melodrama, and proof that a great cast cannot save a film from self-destruction.”

Calling Romeo Is Bleeding overwrought is fair. Flow problems rear their ugly heads here and there. For example, upon one of the femme fatale’s off-screen escapes, Will Patton laments that she:

“…took his gun and is out there running around with it!”

First, Will Patton is a periphery character undeserving of a lament, as he has like five lines the entire film. Second, the fact the femme fatale escaped with his gun never comes up again. No reason exists for spending runtime on it. It’s clutter.

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Ebert goes on to say:

The movie belongs to a modern genre we could call ‘meditations on film noir.’ It doesn’t want to be film noir, but it wants you to know the filmmakers have seen a lot of noir, and understand it enough to be ironic about it.

Since noir itself is the most ironic of genres, this approach is usually doomed: You can’t kid a kidder. (When it works, as in The Grifters, you basically end up with the noir and not the kidding.)

One can’t blame Ebert for this criticism because he wrote the review 30 years ago. Today, Romeo is Bleeding does not move the ironic needle much in light of the way film-making has progressed when it comes to subverting expectations for wry amusement.

“Oh, look, Luke threw the lightsaber away! So amusing!”

Sure, Oldman’s character is not particularly tough. He doesn’t come out on the winning side of fisticuffs or shootouts to a heroic degree. Nor could one call him particularly smart. He doesn’t have a grand plan that comes to ah-ha! fruition. Some wry amusement exists, but ultimately, the character’s quest to “feed the hole” makes him a fairly standard noir character. His questionable morality leads him to a questionable fate.

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Ebert is spot-on about The Grifters, though — nicely done neo-noir from a Jim Thompson book. I recently started reading Thompson and admire his ability to paint with a broad brush while still leaving enough depth in the strokes to produce something that endures. I’ve taken lessons from Thompson and worked them into my own writing projects.

About the cast, Ebert says:

“The movie stars Gary Oldman, unsurpassable in roles of this type, as a crooked, greedy cop named Jack Grimaldi who is working both sides of the street. Assigned to a witness-protection program, he sells his secrets to a mob boss (Roy Scheider).

In his off time, he cheats on his wife (Annabella Sciorra) with a mistress (Juliette Lewis) who indulges his fantasies with an exhausting willingness.”

I reckon many agree with Ebert that the camera loves sleazy Oldman. It’s hard watching Oldman as a character like Commissioner Gordon. Oldman belongs on the other side of the law in film. He has an edgy danger to him that is always seething below the surface. Rumpled suits, sweat and threat — that is Oldman’s lane.

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Ebert also mentions screen legend Roy Scheider. Despite putting one of the most indelible characters ever onscreen (Brody in Jaws), Scheider doesn’t have much to do in Romeo Is Bleeding. He drops into the film the way someone drops in to feed cats for a person out of town.

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Juliette Lewis has a bit more to do, but she mostly reminds viewers the movie came out in the 90s. I see Lewis recently popped up again in Showtime’s Yellowjackets. It is fitting to mention Showtime in this review because Showtime was responsible for a large amount of the films that made up the glut of 1990s neo-noir. I believe 83 percent of them starred Jeff Fahey.

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Annabella Sciorra generates a reasonable amount of pathos in Romeo Is Bleeding and provides whatever moral compass it is that Oldman’s character possesses. At the end of the day, despite his damage, he appears to truly love his wife.

On a side note: Ron Perlman also shows up for a whole two minutes. They should have given him a lament. Will Patton got one…

Ebert says this about Romeo Is Bleeding’s femme fatale, played by Lena Olin:

“She seems born out of countless femme fatales in noir classics. There are essentially three kinds of women in noir: helpless heroines, bimbos and killer predators. She combines the second two categories, although she’s classy enough to give bimbos a good name.”

Olin got some praise for her work in Romeo Is Bleeding. Her character is similar to Xenia Onatopp in Goldeneye but more psycho and cunning. Olin plays the role with a good bit of butch to her performance, from the way she talks to the way she moves. The way Olin combines siren, crazy and masculinity in a feminine package is intriguing.

Personally, I’d run far away from her character, but, as Ebert says, Oldman’s

“…problem is that he is sexually obsessed with Mona, who knows this, and plays games with him involving sadistic come-ons and embarrassing sexual developments. He finds this irresistible. And the plot grows murkier as he tries to play all three ends against the middle.”

Ebert is correct. The plot does grow murky. Viewers get the gist of what is happening, but it doesn’t always come off clean. To a certain extent, this is not a  problem. Jim Thompson’s books also had some muddiness to them when it came to plot. In fact, that might be part of the genre’s charm. One could say such plots represent the dirty morality of the characters, and viewers get a bit of that dirt in their eyes that prevents them from seeing the events clearly.

Peter Medak directed Romeo is Bleeding. Among Medak’s credits are George C. Scott’s The Changling, Species II, an episode of Carnivale, episodes of Hannibal and even an episode of Breaking Bad — the one where Jesse tries to get money from the meth addicts with the ATM machine and the neglected kid. The direction of Romeo is Bleeding did not stand out to me, and that is fine. Medak’s style served as the proverbial transparent curtain that didn’t stop me from following the characters through their machinations.

Hilary Henkin wrote the screenplay, which ends up being a fun fact. Due to the subject matter of Romeo Is Bleeding, I assumed Hilary was a man, since the name is unisex, but Hilary Henkin is all woman. What makes this a fun fact is that she also co-write the Patrick Swayze classic Road House. Who would have thought?

Of the writing, Ebert said:

Henkin, not only slathers on the recycled noir with heedless excess, but adds a portentous narration (“God sends meat and the devil sends cooks”) and tells the story as a flashback that ends up with a particularly annoying gimmick ending. After they had the meat and the cooks, what they needed was a recipe.”

Ebert is not off-base, but I enjoy portentous narration when it comes to noir. Cynical, weary and Ecclesiastical lines coming from broken characters sounds like poetry to me. I don’t view noir or hard-boiled yarns as straight-up storytelling. In general, I view them more along the lines of fairy tales. They have a dark whimsey that gives them their own reality.

The flashback bookends of the movie worked fine, and the end came off as neither annoying nor gimmicky. It was sufficiently poignant and added another dimension to the relationship between Oldman and his wife.

What works less is the dynamic between Oldman and Olin. Not much give-and-take exists. Olin is always one step ahead, and Oldman’s character is always her puppet. I did, however, enjoy the end result of their relationship and the reaction of the policemen present.

Has time been kind to Romeo Is Bleeding? Today, the movie has a 27-percent critic score and a 62-percent audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. Those scores seem ballpark accurate. Personally, Romeo Is Bleeding pushed enough of my subjective buttons that I consider it worth owning.

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