Somewhere out there in an anguished desert enclave along one of the many desolate stretches of American highway is Jim Dougherty (Gary Oldman), stranded in exile at a lonely rest stop cafe as Peter Medak’s brilliant, haunting neo-noir Romeo Is Bleeding opens.
Jim, as we learn through forlornly narration, was once a spectacularly corrupt NYC cop named Jack Grimaldi, a man who got too ambitious in the worst way and learnt every lesson the hardest possible fashion he could. Jack was a greedy, scheming piece of work who two timed his loyal wife (Annabella Sciorra, fantastic) with a ditzy cocktail waitress (Juliette Lewis) and did his best to upend everything the department works for by playing it against the mafia with increasingly disastrous results, stuck on a hollow treadmill chasing dollar signs. But his wife and mistress weren’t the only women in his life, as he soon meets Mona Demarkov, a seductive Russian contract killer played by Lena Olin in a performance that is to be applauded, feared and lusted after in equal measures. Mona is the wild card, the hurricane that upends an uneasy equilibrium Jack has toiled sweatily to set up like a house of cards, ready for her to blow down. Dumped in his lap by the Feds to babysit until mob operatives arrive to kill her, she manipulates, seduces and torments Jack within moments, but she’s only just begun. She escapes into New York and leads everyone on a terrifying goose chase of bloody mind games and gangland espionage, threatening to tear both organizations, not to mention Jack’s sanity, to pieces.
Oldman has never exuded the specific kind of sweaty desperation he showcases here, he’s got three women too many, nasty mafia Don Falcone (a quietly dangerous Roy Scheider) breathing over his shoulder and fellow cops inches away from sniffing out the rat in plain sight. Gary somehow comes across as likeable despite all this heinous behaviour, like a lost puppy who wandered into the wrong cave. Olin really lets loose with her work, she’s a villain not just for the noir hall of fame but for the ages, a murderous black velvet spider on a wanton spree of anarchic, sociopathic, psychosexual destruction and loving every minute of it. They’re supported by an epic roster of talent including Will Patton, David Proval, Larry Joshua, James Cromwell, Ron Perlman, Tony Sirico, Stephen Tobolowsky, Dennis Farina as a gregarious mafioso and the great Michael Wincott as Jack’s underworld pal Sal who turns on him like a jackal when things get out of control.
Many people seem to see this as an interesting yet ultimately flawed piece with uneven tone and what have you, but I couldn’t disagree more. For me this is pretty much as close to perfect as a film can get. Jim sits out there on the lonely byways of some forgotten region and recounts the tale of Jack, there’s such a beautifully mournful melancholy to his story, a true tragedy and cautionary tale laced with grit, jet black humour and an ever so subtle fairytale vibe. Writer Hilary Henkin spins a wild, surreal and slightly self aware screenplay here, while Mark Isham’s creepy, music box infused score gives off bushels of atmospheric portent. I feel like this is another one that was maybe ahead of its time, or perhaps just an acquired taste. I’m happy to see it has a budding cult following these days because it really deserves people’s time, it’s one of the very best crime films of the 1990’s and one of my all time favourite stories out there.