“What is hell? Hell is when you should have walked, but you didn't. That's hell.”
Jack/Jim in purgatory at The Holiday Diner, Nowheresville
Its not very often a film comes from way way out of left field and just blows me away, a film that actually holds interesting scenes knowingly long enough to allow you to drink them in. A film that lovingly caresses the essence of classic Film Noir, updates its violence conventions and very stylishly tells a picaresque tall tale that's so dangerously close to being over the top but yet is still believable enough to let it all roll. Romeo Is Bleeding is addictively compelling in the same manner that Sergio Leone re-imagined Westerns are, and you have to scratch your head and wonder what kind of opiate were the critics and the viewing public mainlining on when this accidental masterpiece of a film debuted. This has happened many times before not only in cinema, but even in the long history of the Fine Art world. Films that at first are panned and forgotten that finally through the filter of time get interpreted right.
Directed by Peter Medak (The Ruling Class) whose predominate body of work has been in TV, using a brilliant knowing script written by Hilary Henkin who seems to have dropped off the face of the earth, gorgeous cinematography by Dariusz Wolski (Dark City) editing by Walter Murch (Touch of Evil (1998 re-edit), Apocalypse Now, The English Patient, Cold Mountain) and with a smokey-jazzy score by Mark Isham that will become wonderfully evocative long after the film fades to black.
A Neo Noir whose all star cast is excellent. Gary Oldham is Jim Daurighty/Jack Grimaldi, an empty shell burn out of a man doomed to spend an eternity staring at infinity at a bypassed desert fly speck in Nowheresville (the type of Noir character usually played by Dana Andrews, John Payne, Steve Brodie, or Edmund O'Brien). Annabella Sciorra plays Natalie Grimaldi, Jack's long suffering, high school sweet heart of a wife (reminiscent of the parts played by Noir babes Alice Faye or Jane Wyatt) , Michael Wincott as the raspy voiced, made man Sal is channeling a very strong Bogart vibe, Juliette Lewis playing Jack's current squeeze Sheri, comes off as a string bean Marilyn Monroe in her Bus Stop mode, Roy Scheider as decadent crime emperor Don Falcone is frighteningly ruthless, Dennis Farina as federal witness Nick Gazzara has a hilarious monologue while stuffing his face with spaghetti. Will Patton, David Proval, Gene Canfield, and Larry Joshua play Jack's partners. Other cameos are from Tony Sirico (The Soprano's), James Cromwell (L.A. Cofidential), and Ron Pearlman, but actress Lena Olin steals every scene she is in.
The narrated story revolves around the decent of NYPD Sergeant Jack "Romeo" Gramaldi into Noirsville. Jack's voice over narration while a throwback to classic noir is also unique, it's comprised of two voices, sometimes the present one the good Jim (aka repentant Jack), sometimes the bad Jack, and sometimes he listens to one head sometimes he listens to the other one.
Jack and Natalie
...something that only your true love understands
that you can whisper to her in the night,
and hold her tight.
Jack looked just like anybody but inside he wasn't like anybody, he was going to do something about the dream. Jack supplies tips on the locations of safeguarded witnesses who will testify against the mob headed by Don Falcone. As Jack puts it he puts a quarter in a slot and $65,000 comes out of a PO Box. He takes the cash and feeds the drain hole he dug for it in the back yard of his Maspeth, Queens row house. Everything was going right until they started going wrong.
Jack and Sal "like the Fall of Rome out there, the streets are filled with animals"
Jack's tip on Gazzara gets both Gazzara and federal agents massacred by "Queen of Queens" rackets mob hit woman Mona Demarkov. Olin is Mona, the pieces lithe, sexy, Russian Femme Fatale and she is a smart, devious, scary-sexy one at that. She flashes her sex like a neon sign at the bottom of a dead end road. Jack looks like a deer caught in her headlights. She probably scared the hell out of a lot of prepubescent boy scouts out there with her animal like sexuality in 1994. That may be the reason the film did poorly upon release, the Zeitgeist was't ready for the likes of Mona. She is feline, deadly, a fusion of Diana and Venus, and when she "presents" herself to Jack, he, and any of us out there that's got a pair of stones are goners. This film is one of the definitive depictions of the Female being deadlier than the Male. She is the female equivalent of Lee Van Cleef. Jack is hypnotized between the allure of Mona and the money she baits him with. In the tradition of classic Noirs, its far more powerful a scene with what it doesn't show than say a similar sequence in Basic Instinct.
"Don't Lou make a nice fire?!" - Nick Gazzera
Mona, the Female of the species on the attack
Jack the quarry
Jack - dead meat
offering sex & money
After Demarkov is captured the second time she makes a deal with the feds to turn witness against Don Falcone. Sal asks Jack for her location Jack provides it but the info is wrong and Jack is summoned before Don Falcone who says he will make his wife ugly, burn his house down, and gut his girlfriend, and if he doesn't kill Mona he'll authorize it. On top of all this Jack fancies himself as a ladies man, a straying tomcat Romeo with women problems, both with his long suffering wife Natalie, and with dive waitress Sheri. Jack and Natalie have some poignant scenes together as their life together falls apart. Jack realizes too late that you don't own love, love owns you.
Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Williamsburg Bridge & J-Z-M line.
A lot of the NYC filming locations were in Williamsburg, with lower Manhattan and Maspeth, Queens also featured.
Noir-ish under the el
Jack watching Sal & Mona
Nods to Sergio Leone - In this film the codes/conventions of Film Noir were amplified, much like Sergio Leone took the American Western, amplified it's codes and mythologized it. But there are a few direct homage shots & sequences.
similar shot in For A Few Dollars More
"you can dig one grave or you can dig two" homage to the end of The Good The Bag And The Ugly
Romeo Is Bleeding features a New York City festooned with graffiti, during the era of the World Trade Center. Williamsburg, Bushwick, and the JMZ elevated line in Brooklyn, Maspeth, in Queens, and lower Manhattan are all featured in the film. Sal like a chain smoking bad Bogart, tells Jack outside of Coney Island, that it (New York City) is like the Fall of Rome out there, the streets are filled with animals. Don Falcone acknowledges that he knows the barbarians are outside the gates but tells Jack that that doesn't mean we have to leave the door open.
Don Falcone I'll make your wife ugly, burn your house down, and gut your girlfriend
Weaved throughout the film both the sound design and the excellent mood pieces that make up Mark Isham's score fit so well to the scenes and overlaps creating a total atmosphere that I again recall the great collaborations of Leone/Morricone, Hitchcock/Herman and Lynch/Badalamenti. The acting is top notch every aspect of the film works amazingly well. This is a hardcore/hardboiled Neo Film Noir about melancholy and regret. Upon multiple re-watches 10/10