Let’s peek in on a rare serene moment in the combustible mix of ’40s film noir and ’90s film gore that is Romeo Is Bleeding. In a parked car on a deserted New York City pier, Jack Grimaldi (Gary Oldman), a crooked cop with big romantic dreams, is waxing philosophic to Mona Demarkov (Lena Olin), the leather queen of the Queens rackets. “You ever been in love?” asks Jack, who has supplied this Soviet sexpot with a fake death certificate in exchange for a bag crammed with $325,000 in cash.
So much for serenity. Mona responds by wrapping a wire around Jack’s neck and cackling madly as she cuts into his windpipe. Then Jack makes his move. Pushing out of the car, he draws his gun and blows a blood-splattering hole in her arm. When Mona uses her good hand to squeeze his balls, he punches her in the face. Shoving Mona in the back seat on her stomach, Jack handcuffs her and drives off in a choking frenzy. But there’s no stopping Mona. Her spike-heeled legs zap up from the back to lock his head in a vise and knock him unconscious as the car crashes into a street lamp. That’s when Mona – not a hit woman to be trifled with – climbs into the front seat, removes the death certificate from the visor with her teeth, grabs the moneybag with hands that are still cuffed behind her back, bashes the windshield with her lethal pumps, climbs out through the jagged glass, drops to the ground with a scream and runs off with her booty.
Wait till you get a load of this babe from hell in scenes that are sure to put the gorgeously lurid Romeo Is Bleeding on the Moral Majority’s shit list. The rest of us – those who believe it’s children and not adults who need protection from movie mayhem – will be too busy relishing the riveting fireworks display from Olin and Oldman in this scorcher of a thriller. Director Peter Medak (The Krays, The Ruling Class) keeps the action stylish, sexy and fiendishly funny. The film rarely makes a lick of sense, but it’s compulsively watchable. Behind the guns, gross-outs, high heels and hard-ons, there’s a subversive wit at play. It belongs to Hilary Henkin, a screenwriter who doesn’t find feminism and eroticism mutually exclusive. Henkin’s deliciously camp dialogue sends up the sexist macho swill that even she’s been guilty of grinding out. Exhibit A: Road House, starring Patrick Swayze as a fuck-’em-and-dump-’em bar bouncer.
In Mona, Henkin creates a hellcat meaner than any reservoir dog. “So you’re the big hoodlum?” Jack says on their first meeting. “Personally, I don’t see it.” Her reply is a terse “Keep looking.” Raunchy Mona has a taste for killing and kink. With her red nails, hooker makeup and a wardrobe Frederick’s of Hollywood would envy (she fastens a gun to her chest with leather straps that allow her pert nipples to poke through), Mona is Jack’s macho wet dream turned castrating nightmare. And Olin, the gifted Swedish actress with a résumé that includes film and theater work with Ingmar Bergman and an Oscar nomination for Enemies, a Love Story, cuts her no slack. In a knockout performance, Olin plays this badass mama with unflinching carnal and comic zest.
It will be a shame if audiences don’t get the joke. Violence in the media has become the whipping boy of choice in these hypocritical times. It’s easier to demonize a movie screen than to deal with the thorny issues of crime, racism, drugs, poverty and gun control. A recent Page One story in the New York Times warned that Hollywood is still up to its old tricks despite Clinton’s Dec. 11 speech to entertainment leaders about curbing depictions of murder and mayhem.
What a shock. Does Hollywood place profit over responsibility? Hello! Does Madonna need an acting coach? Sex and violence sell. They are also a part of life and a worthy subject for filmmakers who don’t hawk them to kids. Much criticism has been levied at True Romance and Kalifornia for showing young renegades inflicting violence without remorse. You’d think such behavior was a Hollywood invention instead of the stuff of headlines about Amy Fisher, Lorena Bobbitt or the Menendez brothers. Exploitative movies get made. But so do good movies by artists with the daring to probe violence (Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas), poeticize it (John Woo’s The Killer), exorcise it (Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant) and even laugh at it (Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs). To argue that we need protection from these films insults our intelligence and raises the familiar specter of censorship.
Romeo Is Bleeding is hardly a threat to the nation. It’s also not for everyone. If you hate the sight of blood, stay away. If you think S&M isn’t a fit subject for satire, as in John Huston’s Prizzi’s Honor, skip it. Romeo isn’t in Prizzi’s landmark league. But if you want to watch experts make wicked sport of B-movie pulp, this one’s for you. Henkin is half in love with the conventions she spoofs. Take Jack’s narration, spoken by Oldman in the smoky tones of Robert Mitchum in the 1947 classic Out of the Past. “What’s hell?” asks Jack, who tells his story in flashback. “The time you should have walked, but you didn’t – that’s hell.”
Jack could have walked easy. He had mob cash buried in his back yard; it’s blood money he earned for telling the Don (Roy Scheider, sublime as slime personified) where the feds hide mob turncoats. Jack had a loyal wife, Natalie (Annabella Sciorra, surprisingly sassy), even if she did hate Jack’s cheating. His latest is a waitress, Sheri (Juliette Lewis, the goddess of cuckoo charm). When her stripping doesn’t rouse him (“Is it hard yet, baby?”), Sheri indulges a fantasy game for the blindfolded Jack. “I’m one of them girls on the Budweiser commercial with the big, soft, round tits and long, tan legs.” Then Jack asks, “Who am I?” When she answers Paul Newman in Hud, Jack’s smile fades because he knows that Sheri never saw the movie. “But I know what happened in it, she says, “and I know he was the prettiest thing that ever was.”
Henkin revels in exploding the usual clichés of the genre – in this movie, the Juliets always outsmart Romeo. Certainly, Jack is no match for Mona, who manipulates him into playing her sexual fantasies and then mocks him for it (“I never liked you, Jack, not even when I screwed you”). Bullets can’t stop Mona; she haunts Jack’s dreams. She’ll haunt yours, too. This is a nutso movie of splendid excess, from the hallucinatory gleam of Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography to the throbbing pulse of Mark Isham’s music. Screw the moral watchdogs; Romeo is terrific, twisted fun.