Romeo Is Bleeding

USA | 1993 | Directed by Peter Medak

Logline: A duplicitous NYC sergeant’s dangerous career as both witness protection guard and Mafioso informant, begins to catch up with him when he’s bribed to kill a seductive Russian assassin to prevent her from testifying.

“People think that Hell is fire and brimstone and the Devil poking you in the butt with a pitchfork, but it’s not. Hell is when you should have walked away, but you didn’t,” narrates Jack Grimaldi, as his best laid intentions for “feeding the hole” start to go seriously awry. He’s been making $65 grand a pop for playing the corrupt cop, stashing the tainted moolah in a rubbish bag in a blocked drain at the base of his garden. Jack wanted it bad, and he got it worse.

The story goes that screenwriter and co-producer Hilary Henkin’s neo-noir tale was one of the ten best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood, drifting around until eventually it landed in the hands of journeyman director Peter Medak, responsible for mostly television work. He shone darkly with this flawed diamond, providing Gary Oldman with one of his more memorably screwed-up characters.

The superb support cast has Annabella Sciorra as Grimaldi’s long-suffering wife, Juliette Lewis as his young ditzy mistress, Michael Wincott as his slick middleman, Will Patton as one of his colleagues, Roy Scheider as a cucumber cool Mob boss, and Lena Olin as the fabulously malicious Russian contract killer. Not forgetting Ron Perlman in one brief scene as Grimaldi’s attorney.

This modern noir drips with melancholy and is laced with all the best elements of the genre, from the reflective, engaging narration which has Oldman taking about his character in the third person (he’s in the witness protection program) to the lonesome jazz trumpet score from Mark Isham which fits the movie hand in cracked leather glove. The ending, which ties the story back to the movie’s prologue (everything has been a flashback), is surprisingly sorrowful. You feel for Jack, despite the fact that he was a cheating asshole.

Such a downbeat denouement where justice and virtue is trampled asunder and the protagonist seems to be doing everything in his power to scuttle his own future is not the kind of movie Hollywood generally makes, especially with a cast this incendiary. I’d kill to make a gangster thriller as rich, stylish and uncompromising as this. Well, perhaps I wouldn’t murder, but I might eat my weathered boots.

Romeo is Bleeding (the title is borrowed from a Tom Waits song) is dark and twisted and bitter and sweet, hitting you like a hefty swig from a bottle of stale over-proof bourbon while you chain-smoke past the midnight hour, absent-mindedly rubbing that slow-healing scar, and wondering if she’ll ever call you back …