It is easy to forget a movie made nearly 17-years ago, especially a quirky crime drama that was only screened in 247 theaters upon release. In the early 90’s Forrest Gump might be the first film to come to mind, or Natural Born Killers, Pulp Fiction or Hoop Dreams. A little film like Romeo is Bleeding, sadly, is easily caught up in the frenzy but if you haven’t seen it you should. It’s difficult enough these days to remember what you saw last year – another zombie horror flick or slasher remake is about as memorable as day-time reality network shows that make celebrities out of ordinary, and dare I saw processed personages devoid of substance or lasting consequence. That’s not counting the remakes of remakes or the otherwise genre-bloated, straight to DVD hell of films that usually end up last choices when all the first run movies come out; the proverbial drop in the movie bucket and if you blink once or twice a couple of decades have caught up with you and you’re wondering what happened to all those movies, television series and actors you spent a lifetime getting to know. The 1990’s saw a fair share of good films, some quite notable television series before pay-for-television cable networks consumed the market and left everything else like cracker crumbs on asphalt instead of serious and memorable episodic storytelling. What ever happened to Crime Story or its more widely successful cousin Miami Vice? The remake was dismal, insulting even. All that to say films often into obscurity, some for obvious reasons, others not so obvious. Today so many movies are just passing time, a chance to divorce oneself of their troubles yet even tucked safely in the comfortable armchairs of the theater movies fall flat, franchises wear thin and end up the thinness of character studies muddled as epics, comedies and dramas populated with familiar but mostly not-so interesting faces that have either faded from some temporary Andy-Warholian fifteen minutes of fame or gone on to bigger, brighter things. Others remain a constant, solid testament to true American dramatic works with respectable actors by filmmakers who have spent their careers erecting unique characters from the mud, from good films replaced by bad ones or in the least films that have forgotten the importance of specificity, story and larger than life possibility. A movie from two decades ago might go unnoticed at all except for the film aficionado, the reviewer and critic, the fan who watched the film once and quickly added it to his/her personal library to enjoy again and again. Dare I say such a film is the 1993 Peter Medak film, Romeo Is Bleeding.
Romeo Is Bleeding is character, character, character. This isn’t your typical cop drama or police procedural with a simple storyline about good and bad, about blurring the line between cops and robbers; this is a film that sticks to the ribs, it gets below the surface and returns from time to time when you’re watching lesser films that are trying too hard to be different or original or both. Romeo Is Bleeding makes you laugh and cringe, it makes you want to spend time with these characters and lie to yourself that you wouldn’t behave similarly or at least deep down somewhere very near the surface of your deepest desires. Sex and money remains the finest fuel of human action known and it is no wonder it exudes from these characters as easily as sweat, as effortless as instinct.
Gary Oldman commands this film with every breath and every ounce of his being. If that is not reason enough to invest in the film, find a way to invite his charismatic police sergeant in for a little while and watch how he systematically dissembles every sense of normalcy we, every one of us, hold dear. Jack (Oldman) has his routine, his wife and a string of mistresses who have spent too long strung along to remain silent as Jack fights on the front lines of human brutality; Gary Oldman plays Jack like a jagged mis-match of broken pieces that can no longer fit together, some flawed with peeling edges, others pristine, perfect and lovable; other parts don’t come so easily, the parts that are soaked in money and sex and quickly disorient poor Jack such that his mid-career police detective badge isn’t ever going to shine any brighter – in this case Jack, who has been “on the take” for so long it has become part of who he is and what he has become, conducts business as usual, a snitches life in exchange for a fat yellow envelope of pay off money, until his love affair with dreams burns away all hope for a meaningful future.
Oldman’s performance ranks amongst his best, perhaps only truly tested by earlier films like Sid and Nancy or Prick Up Your Ears – though anyone who has not seen Luc Besson’s 1993 film The Professional is missing one of Oldman’s seminal, albeit brief character portrayals that marks one of the most memorable out of control policemen in cinematic history. Though his transformation is slow and deliberate it is also inevitable, so similar to our own descent into failure and self destructiveness as he is drawn into the web of a sexy Russian female assassin and an aging godfather like super villain artful played by Roy Scheider. Scheider, we learn, controls Jack as a marionette and when Jack fails to dance he is quickly derailed, hobbled as it were, and his usual quick pay packages for spilling the beans on inside hush-hush police activity come to an abrupt halt. Roy Scheider is reserved like a lion resting at the cave of his domain, well tanned and enjoying a lavish breakfast, he greets Oldman’s unraveling police detective with poise and disdain; he looks as though he might reveal his teeth at any moment and consume everyone in sight. We have all seen too many gangster Mafiosos in films but Scheider carves out a particularly interesting place for himself, part diplomat with ample amounts of filthy money stuck in glass-like shards beneath his fingernails, he threatens Jack’s place in the world within seconds without even breaking a sweat in his expensive clothing and kept underworld. This is a breaking point in the film, a one way road that Oldman’s character Jack willingly pursues – what else is he going to do? Whether he wants to or not this is the point in the film where the story must turn, the arc must lead us toward some sense of closure. After this there is no stopping the plummet that ensues, the implosion that consumes everyone on both sides of the law with victims at every turn.
What is surprising about this film is not so much the territory, most of us have seen similar scenarios played out in big cities like New York and Los Angeles with equally adept and creepy characters, but the tendency for things to stick with us. The moments are sharp and poignant explorations of the highs and lows we experience every day only elevated, embellished to the point of near absurdity. We chuckle at times as much for the sheer horror as the simple ridiculousness of what we are watching. This timelessness is engaging and captures nearly all aspects of human drama to the extent to which the filmmakers make a point of the sounds, smells and everydayness of a blues tune fluttering in a bar or the rattling of the subway outside that punctuates every conversation as if to suggest that everything is as it should be only we know different. The filmmakers make sure we have entered a place where people arrive and depart, they live and they die, and the ordinary world is scattered along roads and alleyways that might look exactly like the places we live or perhaps nothing but memories we’ve known our entire lives. Romeo Is Bleeding is as much about the individual stories of the main characters as it is the edge we often find ourselves, at the point of decision and the unavoidable ramifications like tremors on the surface of a pool reflecting the person we used to be alongside the one we dream about every other day of our life.
Lena Olin is the super sexy, ultra violent femme fatale who stops at nothing to get what she wants. Her body is as dangerous as her hands or mind as she manipulates her way through the story, devouring cops and criminals alike as she poises herself to ascend the throne of the underworld headed by Roy Scheider. She is at once seductive and inviting, coy and precocious – she knows what she wants and how to get it and just about every male character in the film falls victim to her seduction. The rest of the film is populated with brilliant character actors, from Dennis Fahrina (Crime Story) to Juliette Lewis (Natural Born Killers, Whip It), Will Paton (The Agency, Numb3rs) and Annabelle Sciorra (Cop Land, The funeral) and Tony Sirico (The Sopranos). The characters carry the film with potent twists and turns as greed, seduction, madness and obsession spiral into an inky soup of emotional and psychological drama that keeps the action swift and the story turning until the final climax where a bookend and voice over provide a necessary pause for the audience to catch up and come to some measure of the intense trip that never truly gives up on the idea that in every one of us lives chance, goodness and hope. The real question is whether we are deserving or better off mired in reflection on the choices we could have made if not for the immediacy of trouble and the gamble for more than we have at the cost of what we have accomplished.
Romeo Is Bleeding sets the ground work for so many films that have followed that the list is staggering. An impressive ensemble piece with memorable characters and outlandish scenarios that keep you engaged to the very end, this is what you should expect from an action-drama where the filmmakers and the actors are not afraid to take risks and the result is something that critics and audiences never tire of.