Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence, Language and Sexuality
Directed by: Peter Medak
Written by: Hilary Henkin
Starring: Gary Oldman, Lena Olin, Annabella Sciorra, Juliette Lewis, Roy Scheider, Michael Wincott, Will Patton, James Cromwell & Ron Perlman
The 90’s was a strange time for cinema. Though many of my friends cite the 70’s or the 80’s as their favorite decade in film, I personally favor the 90’s. Bold new talents were arriving and great old talents were putting out some of their best work. The filmmaking scene was expanding into exciting new areas as independent films made huge waves. With all of the great movies coming out of this oddball decade, many forgotten and overlooked gems were buried. ROMEO IS BLEEDING premiered at a couple of film festivals before being trashed by most critics and flopping hard at the box office. That’s really a shame as this super dark modern noir deserves more fans than it has. Peter Medak didn’t go on to do anything of note after ROMEO IS BLEEDING, but could have very well ended up as a tour-de-force like Tarantino or the Coen brothers. This is film is that good!
Jack Grimaldi is a New York cop who’s recently discovered the monetary benefits of playing both sides of the law. He serves as a police officer by day and mob informant by night. Aside from his corrupt double-life, Jack is also cheating on his wife with a younger mistress. His newest illegal assignment is to kill a psychopathic Russian assassin, Mona, who will briefly be in his custody. Jack fails to complete his task due to a sexual attraction to Mona. As a consequence for not going through with the deed, Jack finds his life thrown into turmoil. Both his wife and mistress are now in danger from an intimidating mob boss, all while Mona keeps reappearing in his life with unclear intentions. Jack’s been thrown into a deadly mess of blood, money, and sex. If he walks away alive, he won’t be walking away clean.
As far as film noirs go, ROMEO IS BLEEDING is among the most vicious and grimy that I’ve seen. The New York locations shine under solid cinematography, especially the nighttime scenes. A constant feeling of ever-approaching dread keeps escalating with each passing minute. The screenplay is a tightly constructed web of deceit and violence that keeps the viewer on their toes. I gasped multiple times while watching this film, especially as things spiral out-of-control in the second half. The soundtrack is both a blessing and a curse. It’s very pleasing throughout most of the movie and seems to fit certain scenes like a glove. However, there are a couple of points where it borders on distracting as it’s trying a bit too hard to emulate past film noir music. My only complaint with this film lies in those few moments of so-so music. Otherwise, it’s a pretty damned awesome thriller tailor-made for those who like their crime films to be dark, complicated and twisted!
Of course, a great screenplay wouldn’t do much if the performers weren’t pulling their weight. A pre-LEON Gary Oldman plays Jack as a morally reprehensible being. He starts off as a pathetic character who is easily manipulated. It’s hard to feel much sympathy for him and though he’s pretty much a scumbag through and through, he’s very interesting to watch (especially when you see that he does care about the safety of those around him). His unhinged narration throughout gives us an insight into why he makes some of the stupid decisions that he does, even gains a bit of pity as he deeply regrets committing his crimes. Juliette Lewis and Annabella Sciorra star as Jack’s love interests and are fairly well-developed through little nuances they put into their performances (especially Juliette Lewis lecturing Jack upon discovering that he’s a married man). Roy Scheider plays the mob boss as calm, collect, and very dangerous. Finally, there’s the show’s real scene-stealer in Lena Olin’s Mona. This character is an absolute psychopathic monster and Olin is a beast in the part. She’s downright terrifying and one of my new favorite femme fatales.
ROMEO IS BLEEDING won’t be please everyone. It might be too dark, grim and violent for some. Those looking for an intense modern noir will not be disappointed though. From the stellar performances from Gary Oldman and Lena Olin to the insane screenplay that goes into macabre corners that you wouldn’t imagine possible, this is one the best underrated gems that I’ve found in reviewing for this website thus far. ROMEO IS BLEEDING is a film that I plan on revisiting many times in the future and is definitely worth checking out!