Peter Medak’s blistering neo-noir was not what I was looking for when I saw it on a late-night cinema screening at my local flea-pit back in 1993; it might have been tough and violent, but the story was also the absolute opposite of what I was hoping to see as a young man. Rather than a tough guy sorting out trouble, the main character seemed to be weak and hopeless, easily manipulated by the various mafia elements surrounding him; to that extent, it seems to pre-date the cowardly anti-protagonist of Ridley Scott’s equally ignored The Counsellor. A new blu-ray print from the BFI is here to rescue this abrasive thriller from the memory junk-pile; in retrospect, Romeo Is Bleeding anticipates the colourful, grungy bite of Tarantino, shot the same year that Reservoir Dogs was released.
The title comes from a Tom Waits song; the hard-boiled narration feels like it’s written in a similar idiom. Using a conventional Sophoclean structure, we open with cop Jack Grimaldi (Gary Oldman) explaining how he came to be behind the wheel of a runaway car having the last breath squeezed out of him by the deadly legs of assassin Mona Demarkov (Lena Olin). We reverse swiftly from the scene of the crime, and see how Grimaldi was charged with killing Mona by mob boss Falcone (Roy Scheider), and how he ended up making out on the floor of a safe-house with her. The problem from Grimaldi is; he’s been playing all ends, and is in deep with police corruption, AND the mob, and getting pay-offs and bribes is a way of life; he has a secret stash of cash that’s taking over his life ‘I just had to feed the hole,’ Grimaldi complains regularly. Any Freudian interpretations are correct; Jack has a frustrated mistress named Sheri (Juliette Lewis) as well as a wife Natalie (Annabelle Sciorra) who confronts him at gunpoint when he comes home from a shift. Everyone wants a share of Jack’s cashola, but the way things are going, he’s unlikely to live to enjoy it for himself…
Oldman has since proved himself both a great movie star and an accomplished character actor; here, he fuses both into a punkish display, complete with a little Mean Streets rooftop dance as he takes his place for a voyeuristic stake-out. Medak never puts a Kubrickan imprint on his work, but lets the material talk and gives actors their head to be creative; Oldman delivers a slippery, evasive and increasingly desperate performance here. Olin makes a kick-ass nemesis, and there’s salty support from Ron Pearlman, Michael Wincott and Dennis Farina, all folk cut out to populate an urban crime story. And the whole things slams together; Walter Murch edits, arguably the best in the business at the time.
As well as a commentary by author and film critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, this lush BFI re-master features a lengthy and highly enjoyable interview with Medak, giving a neat review of some career highlights (The Ruling Class, The Changeling). I saw Medak a couple of years ago touring with his recollections of fighting Peter Sellers in the 70’s, and he’s great value for anecdotes and insight. Medak offers some choice recollections about how to persuade Oldman ; ‘I phoned him up and told him to make his f**king mind up!’. The print comes up great, with choice locations in Queens and Coney Island, and there’s also a chance to enjoy some of Mark Isham’s jazzy score in isolation.
I wasn’t the only one who didn’t care for this film on release; critics carped, audiences stayed away, and even Jon Bon Jovi refused to provide a song (Always) for the soundtrack. Nearly thirty years later, Romeo is Bleeding emerges as one of the best films of the 90’s, urgent, questioning, and indicative of a society eating and destroying itself. Medak notes that he and Oldman had discussed a film of JP Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, which has a similarly venal protagonist; like Jack Grimaldi, these are men on a self-destructive mission, and Medak’s film is something more than a cop thriller or action movie, but a meditation on not knowing that fate has caught up with you until it’s too late…
Thanks to the BFI for advanced blu-ray access to Romeo Is Bleeding.
Out on blu-ray, digital and DVD from March 8th in the UK. Link below.