Focusing instead on CONFESSIONS OF A HIT MAN (1994), one of those odd noirs from the 90s that avails itself of the "empty quarter" between LA and Las Vegas for the bulk of its action and ambience. Reposting Mike's text, followed by a brief exchange we had about the film in 2017, and wrapping up with observations from a recent late-night rewatch...
CONFESSIONS OF A HITMAN develops a fascinating mood as hitman James Remar, faced with death in a month due to an inoperable brain tumor, grabs $4 million of mob money and ends up being driven instead to Vegas. A large part of the movie is this trip through Death Valley, being driven by a chauffeur in a stretch Caddy. Great settings that the photography picks up beautifully. They pick up a blonde along the way who adds interest. The story is what is called "existential". This is almost a desert noir, even if it ends up in Vegas. Remar has always made an impression on me. I think it was his bad guy roles in "48 Hours" and "The Cotton Club". This movie is on YouTube.
The reviews split between "I hate it" and "I love it" Since I like almost any movie and the "I hate it" school of criticism hardly ever has good reasons for that evaluation, I'll quote a bit of the latter reaction:
"The best thing in the movie is James Remar, who creates a very interesting character that's funny, touching, annoying and a little dangerous. The other actors are also good, certainly the driver, but Remar makes the movie. The cinematography was, at certain points, beautiful. Death Valley never looked so beautiful. And the music was excellent. The story is filled with quirky little details which create an intimate narrative I rarely see in movies these days and though the film might prove underwhelming for those who are used to being hit over the head with Hollywood's sledgehammer-style of filmmaking, I thought the low key approach of the direction was refreshing, certainly for a story about the mob. Thumbs up!"
Thanks, Mike. Have not caught HITMAN, will try to do so soon. Remar has had quite a career, much of it under the radar. More recently he's worked with Tarantino, but his range also extends to more cerebral characters, as exemplified in his fine work as Harry Morgan in DEXTER (2006-13).
Part of the movie's charm is that at first we do not know what to make of the hit-man Bruno Serrano (James Remar). The same is true of his chauffeur (Michael Wright) and the young woman (Emily Longstreth) they rescue from a disabled car. We learn about them as we go through their behavior and experiences. It's not a story in which everything that happens connects to an overall plot moving toward a climax connected to the preceding events. Each event is more or less a vignette that sheds light on the people but maintains a mystery about them. The trio face various different hostile or disruptive forces along the way, but without making the movie into a single-minded story of pursuit. The story is really about what a man feels and thinks who has been a mob hit-man and now has only a short time to live.
Remar is a very good actor. When he has a headache in this story, you feel it. When he handles hoods and federal agents, you are with him. His suit makes him look like an anachronism of the 50s or 60s. His diversion into the desert and with Longstreth is charming. He has a little aside with Perry Lopez as a priest. It's not the tightest writing, but it still connects. There are distant associations because of Lopez in "Chinatown", and a reminder of the locale of "True Confessions". The stretch Cadillac is a star on its own.
My re-watch confirms much of Mike's astute summary. I think a lot of the "desert neo-noir" we've seen (particularly the ones that seemed to proliferate in the 90s) is bound up in the visual metaphor of the barren state of humanity (and the paradoxical but highly useful fact that shooting at night in the desert allows both for claustrophobia and limitless spaces). That said, much of the effective moodiness that builds up over the series of desert vignettes is achieved by some impressive daylight footage as the stretch limo makes its way through the Amargosa desert. This is paralleled by the character arc for Emily Longstreth who emerges as the "redemptive girl" that is so often a feature of noir (but not so much "neo-noir"). This is done in an organic way throughout the desert sequence, and the final chaste "romance" she and Remar have is extremely well-modulated. The final scene, which could have been played for the usual blood-soaked reckoning, takes things in a totally different direction.
It's also the last time anyone will ever see the angular, enigmatic Longstreth on screen: her career came to an abrupt, mysterious (and possibly tragic) end with this film. In her mid-twenties at this point and a veteran featured player in "teen films" during the late 80s, she had an indefinable quality that clearly registered but that no one could figure out how to fully unleash. Rumors about her subsequent life (and unconfirmed death) are sparse, but swirl around psychological issues that purportedly surfaced (and that may explain the four-year gap in her filmography between CONFESSIONS OF A HITMAN and the 1990 TV movie RISING SON, where she is extremely impressive in a limited role as Matt Damon's spurned hometown girlfriend).
HITMAN is by no means a great film, but it builds past its early stumbles and ends with a bittersweet flourish. Remar does a fine job of negotiating a semi-anarchic "stages of self-grief" character arc and, as the sports commentators like to say about Olympic gymnasts, "nails his dismount."