Thursday, September 3, 2015

Neglected Gem #82: Hollywood Homicide (2003)

Harrison Ford and Josh Hartnett in Hollywood Homicide (2003).

Ron Shelton’s Hollywood Homicide is breezy, low-key and smoothly crafted. It’s Shelton’s Hollywood movie (he co-wrote it with Robert Souza), so though it presents a no-big-deal police-procedural plot involving an ex-con (the excellent Isaiah Washington), now managing rappers, who hires an ex-cop (Dwight Yoakam) as a hit man to kill off a band no longer interested in his services, it has a hip, free-wheeling spirit and an almost put-on, not-quite-of-this-world feel. (A car in a chase smashes through what looks like a brick wall but turns out to be a movie-set drop – a good variation on a joke from the king of Hollywood-on-Hollywood pictures, Singin’ in the Rain.) The heroes are two LAPD cops who execute their job with alacrity even though each has more pressing matters on his mind. The older, Joe (Harrison Ford), has a real-estate business on the side that he’s hoping will heft him out of his current financial hole (he pays alimony to three ex-wives). He’s constantly taking calls on his cell, and he even brokers a deal to hook up one of the suspects – the owner of the club where the rappers were murdered – with a past-his-prime producer (Martin Landau) who wants to get rid of his Beverly Hills crib. K.C. (Josh Hartnett), the young stud with whom he’s lately been partnered, gives yoga classes to a room full of nubile females, and tells Joe he’s thinking of quitting the force and becoming an actor. (He throws together a showcase of A Streetcar Named Desire with himself as Stanley Kowalski.) K.C. became a cop because his dad was one and died mysteriously on the job. But though he tracks down his dad’s killer in the course of the movie, Shelton is smart enough not to let that subplot take over or alter the tone. The pieces of the plot fit together, but Hollywood Homicide is directed so that you don’t give them much thought. (You might, of course, if they didn’t fit together.)

You wouldn’t necessarily think of Ford and Hartnett as a match, but they’re a sharp one. Ford uses his rumpled movie-star handsomeness and his harried, eruptive personality against Hartnett’s cooled-out slacker style; they’re like cartoon versions of the old Hollywood and the new Hollywood, smacked together in the same frame by a witty jokester. Hartnett’s K.C. is so unruffled (dead bodies are just about the only thing that unnerves him – a trip to the coroner makes him physically ill) that you break up when he tells Joe that he really believes in the power of yoga; this is one dude who requires no centering. Plus it’s obvious – to both Joe, who wanders in during one of K.C.’s classes, and to us – that he teaches yoga so he can get laid as often as possible. So many desirable young women come on to him that he can’t keep their names straight, and his constant gaffes – a running gag in the movie – don’t bother him (or them). Hartnett is so great-looking and powder-dry that it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking he isn’t an actor, but his timing here is impeccable. And Ford is in supremely relaxed mode, as he was with Anne Heche in Six Days, Seven Nights five years earlier. When he’s on his game, he mines comedy out of his characters’ short fuses. (When he’s not, his jaw locks and his whole body goes steely.) The flatfoot he’s playing in Hollywood Homicide is at the end of his tether financially and fed up with the LAPD bureaucrats. One of them (Bruce Greenwood), an Internal Affairs jerk, is doing his best to make Joe’s life hell because he shortcut a procedure and committed a minor infraction. Yet Joe’s too much of a pro to get distracted (like K.C., he’s an expert compartmentalizer) and still suave enough to land a sexy radio psychic named Ruby in bed with little effort. He keeps the affair on the sly, so K.C. worries his partner isn’t getting any. Then, after they’ve split up for the night, he sees Joe pick up a transvestite hooker on the street and fears he’s getting desperate. But the guy turns out to be an undercover cop gamely played by, of all people, Lou Diamond Phillips. As Ruby, Shelton cast the magnificent Lena Olin, whose loopy rhythms aren’t like anyone else’s; she seems to be stoked on her own inner helium.

Harrison Ford and Lena Olin

The movie is beautifully assembled. Barry Peterson’s photography gives L.A. a slightly intensified color – synthetic, like the hues in a velvet painting – and the crack editor Paul Seydor, who has often worked with Shelton, does some of his best un-self-conscious work. There’s a wonderful sequence set on the water where the two cops – Joe at the wheel, K.C. on foot – go after K-Ro, the only member of the band who managed to sneak out of the club during the massacre and has been laying low ever since. (K-Ro is played by the rapper Kurupt, who was one of the hit men in Shelton’s Dark Blue.) It’s a Loony Tunes chase, with Kurupt making a getaway on a pedal boat and Joe gliding his car back and forth across a pair of tiny bridges. The way the scene is shot and edited makes you think of a DJ sampling at a pair of turntables. K-Ro turns out to be a second-generation pop musician; to Joe’s delight the kid’s mother, Olivia, used to sing back-up for some of his favorite Motown performers. Joe’s such an R&B fan that his cell phone plays the intro to the Temptations’ “My Girl.” “You had a better voice than Tammy Tyrell,” he tells Olivia, grinning in admiration, and when she replies that Tammy got the breaks she didn’t, she says it without resentment. Olivia is played by Gladys Knight, whose completely natural presence on camera is an unexpected pleasure. Smoky Robinson turns up, too, as a pissed-off cabbie, as do Eric Idle, Frank Sinatra, Jr. and Robert Wagner.

Hollywood Homicide is a lot like one of the early Hope-Crosby Road pictures: hipster vaudeville. Only those guys never got a chance to work with a director of Shelton’s caliber. It’s a damn shame that Shelton can’t catch a break. No one went to see Hollywood Homicide, and no one saw his previous cop picture, either – a serious one, Dark Blue, which was terrific and boasted an incendiary performance by Kurt Russell that’s probably the best thing he’s ever done. Shelton’s last movie before that, the boxing-buddy picture Play It to the Bone, sank too, despite its filmmaking savvy – the sequences in the ring were, for my money, better than the hyped-up ones in Raging Bull – and the wildly enjoyable interaction of the two leads, Antonio Banderas and Woody Harrelson (another improbably winning match of personalities). I’m not sure what the hell Shelton has to do to get back the attention he won with Bull Durham; even making a near-masterpiece, Cobb, didn’t help. And since Hollywood Homicide the poor bastard can’t get himself arrested; the only work he’s had is on TV, and damn little of that. One of the best American directors around is missing in action.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

1 comment:

  1. I've always thought this film was under-rated. Nice to see I'm not the only one. (It's always gratifying when someone agrees with me, of course.)