'Red Rock West' is an enjoyable twist on bleak, classic film noir

June 03, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

In the world of film noir you're usually between a rock and a hard place, but poor Nicolas Cage's character Michael takes this common predicament a bit further: he's -- literally -- between a Red Rock and a hard place.

Michael, a distillation of anti-heroes drained from the dregs left on the bar by James M. Cain and Jim Thompson, is the perfect embodiment of the noir character: a good-hearted chump who has the damnedest luck in the world. Michael's the sucker at the heart of John Dahl's vividly good old time, "Red Rock West," a neo-noir that opens today at the Charles.

No true noir can exist today. The original cycle of films -- cynical, despairing and webbed with shadow and the glinting highlights of wet streets in dangerous cities -- were purely un-self-conscious creations of the late '40s and early '50s. No more studied genre exists; it is probably possible to major in film noir at some of the lesser graduate mills. (I should talk: I taught a course in it once!)

Thus, the baby boom's second-generation contribution to the oeuvre is the vividly self-conscious neo-noir, of which "Body Heat" is probably the one masterpiece, with "Blood Simple" close behind, and of which "Red Rock West" is a prime example. It's ironic, distant and usually outlandish in nature, well aware of the spiritual, technical and photographic conventions that have come before. It takes as its prime strategy the subtle inflation of these values, for comic ends.

So when Cage's footloose and unemployed Michael, hangdog and burnt out (he's a survivor not of World War II, like most classic noir heroes, but of the bombing of the Beirut Marine barracks), shows up at a bar in the flyspeck Western town of Red Rock (pop. 874), he doesn't know he's stepping into the hard-knock cafe. But when he sees the universal symbol of movie opprobrium at the cash register -- the dolorous, devious J.T. Walsh -- he ought to figure it out fast.

Of course he doesn't. In noir, nobody figures out anything fast, except for the women at the center, but Michael doesn't meet her for another few minutes. The first gag: Walsh hands the destitute Michael $5,000, which is a down payment on a job that Michael soon infers is the murder of Walsh's wife. So Michael makes a big mistake, the classic noir mistake: He thinks he can play the game with the big fishes.

He drives out to the ranch, but not to kill the wife, who turns out to be the femme fatale of the film, the tough, smart cookie of noir fable. It's Lara Flynn Boyle, with McDonald's arches for eyebrows painted above her shrewd lion eyes. Instead of killing her, Michael warns her and in turn takes $10,000 to kill her husband. So 10 minutes into Red Rock (and into the movie) he's got $15,000, an open road and nothing to stop him. Except he's . . . out of gas.

In film noir, of course, the physical world is always in conspiracy against the hero in small, subversive ways. He stops for gas, then on the way out hits a man who wouldn't have been there if he hadn't stopped for gas, and the whole mad thing begins to spin out of control.

"Red Rock West" is astutely plotted -- perhaps I should say over-plotted -- after the conventions of the genre; it's one mega-twist after another, each more audacious and coincidental than the previous one. In fact, Dahl and his brother Rick, who co-wrote, are nothing if not ingenious. The best of these twists has already been given away, so I ruin nothing by revealing that while fleeing from the cops, Michael is rescued by a down-homey, avuncular Dennis Hopper, who turns out to be the paid killer Michael is impersonating!

Other wonderfully irrational touches appear. My favorite was a gaudy World War I monument, complete to pewter soldier with a rifle and bayonet turning up in an otherwise nondescript country graveyard just when someone was in desperate need of skewering. A freight train shows up, moving at 10 miles per hour, just when it is most advantageous for a freight train to show up; had the engineer read the script?

Well, anyway: the movie is extremely enjoyable in a superficial kind of way, as much for the way it sends up the old genre as for anything else. Alas, it fails only to deliver the final stroke. In classic noir, the endings were always bleak, with our banty little hero getting squashed for all his trouble. But it's the '90s. Unhappy endings? What would market research say?

"Red Rock West"

Starring Nicolas Cage and Lara Flynn Boyle

Directed by John Dahl

Released by Roxy Films

Unrated

***

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