Rachel Leigh Cook is not only beautiful but she must be the greatest actress of her generation. How else to explain the fact that she can submit to being told in the patented denasal tones of Sylvester Stallone that she is “a special girl” —and that if she forgets it she’s going to have “a big problem” with him—without being visibly creeped out? The effeminate dot.com tycoon played by Alan Cumming calls Mr Stallone’s character, Jack Carter, “Mr. Scary Man,” but he’s not half so scary when threatening people and beating them up (as of course he does at every turn) as he is when he is trying to be tender. “You are so freaky,” says the sweet but rebellious teenager Doreen, Miss Cook’s character, to her Uncle Jack.
“We’re all a little freaky, Doreen,” says Stallone, waxing philosophical. “It’s the straight ones you have to worry about.”
What a very Hollywoodish idea! Carter is supposed to come from Las Vegas, where he works for a Mr Big called Fletcher, who is only present as a voice on the cell-phone, but he is pure Hollywood as he drives his little flock of cinematic clichés down the narrow lane provided by Stephen Kay’s remake of Mike Hodges’s classic of the same name of 1971. Carter is still working at the same job he was when he was Rocky Balboa. “People make promises, and they break them,” he explains to his comely niece. “My job’s to refresh their memory.” And you would think that nearly a quarter-century on from Rocky he might have grown tired of trying to make getting beaten up look poignant and artistic. No such luck. No less a personage than Mickey Rourke is (for once) able to find a job by giving Sly’s character a hammering—before, of course, getting hammered himself.
And what, in heaven’s name, is Michael Caine doing here? His fellow-countryman, Mr Cumming, is by now in danger of being typecast in roles like that of the giggling tycoon ( “Not to blow the proverbial horn, but I’m worth approximately a gazillion dollars,” he says in one of writer David McKenna’s ideas of a witty line), but he does them very well and may have no higher ambition than to be the Elisha Cook Jr (you know, the little man who played one creepy coward after another from the 1930s right through the 1970s) de nos jours. But Mr Caine is utterly wasted in a role like that of the sinister bar-owner, Cliff Brumby, who befriends Jack Carter but who knows far more about the death of Carter’s late brother than he lets on. He can do the part standing on his head, but it is not a part worth doing. He must need the money.
It is the brother’s death—a murder as Carter believes—which brings him back to the family’s home in Seattle after a five-year absence in Vegas. Seattle proves to be the usual hell-hole of corruption and vice, and although Carter’s exploits create havoc in the streets and several further murders there is not so much as a policeman to be seen, except briefly when the home of his sister-in-law (Miranda Richardson) is burglarized by unknown parties. In one of the film’s concluding scenes (it could hardly be called a climactic one) one character tells Carter that if he kills him he will be on the run for the rest of his life, but it does not surprise us that Carter shoots him anyway—or that he then proceeds to drive off at the end without so much as a ray of official suspicion being directed his way. Law and order doesn’t exist in this film. We are meant simply to assume that the cops are bought off, I guess.
For the real problem with this picture, as with nearly every contemporary attempt to revive the noir cinematic dramas of half a century ago, is not just the contempt for narrative coherence but the attitude it betokens. For the existential angst that the old movies can be made to yield up, we nowadays substitute a merely facile cynicism. Everybody save the hero (or, in Mr Stallone’s case, every male character) is corrupt, vicious, violent and, in a word, despicable. Decency is quite unknown, except as a vanished dream of the disillusioned women. The battered and cynical hero is the nearest we get to it, but he must pick his way through the moral minefield of this dark, dark world without so much as a hope of anything better. In the end it is all just an excuse for Stallone or some other narcissist to posture and to imagine that pretty young things like Miss Cook admire him for it. The scariest thing of all is that a lot of them do too.