Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Keenan's Klassics: Coldblooded (1995)

A lot of irons in the fire these days, kids, so posts may be even more sporadic than usual. In the meantime, here’s an oldie but a goodie, an essay I wrote for Ray Banks’ late, lamented film site Norma Desmond’s Monkey in September 2011.

Now that the independent film cycle of the 1990s has receded into the mists of time, the truth can be told: the bulk of the movies it spawned simply don’t hold up. It’s true of any creative boom in which the inmates, however briefly, run the asylum. For all the splendors of the auteurist flowering of the 1970s, many of the films made during that period come across now as druggy and self-indulgent. The moral is don’t kick against the pricks, artsy types. A lot of you need a firm hand on the reins.

The Sundance craze of the ‘90s was ultimately co-opted by the studios with the result that the Coen Brothers stable of players turns up in the Transformers movies and the reward for demonstrating vision on a budget is being handed a superhero franchise. Independent film’s true legacy – intimate storytelling that isn’t afraid of dark places or protagonists – isn’t in theaters but on cable television. I will even posit that it was worth sitting through all of those grainy coming-of-age tales and different-drummer comedies so episodes of Louie could be pumped into millions of homes each week.

The truly interesting work in any movement is done in the margins, and no genre is more marginal than the crime comedy. Aside from the fact that Quentin Tarantino raised the form’s bar ridiculously high, there are too many opportunities for lazy transgression. Make the main character a hit man, as plenty of ‘90s filmmakers did, and you risk putting bigger fish in a smaller barrel.

Bringing us to Coldblooded. The movie wafted briefly into theaters in late summer 1995. The biggest name attached to the production was producer Michael J. Fox, who also surfaces in a cameo. It didn’t make much commercial impact, but I remember it with affection. A more recent film brought it to mind anew. Forget this year’s Jason Statham/Ben Foster update. Coldblooded is the actual remake of The Mechanic, replacing the original’s vaguely Mansonesque vibe with coffee shop quirkiness. And yet somehow it works.

The film was written and directed by M. Wallace Wolodarsky, who without the initial earned a place in comedy heaven for his work with partner Jay Kogen on the first four seasons of The Simpsons. (There’s a ‘90s staying power test. What would you rather rewatch, any Sundance prizewinner or “Lisa the Greek”?) Jason Priestley stars in an example of an indie film benefit I wouldn’t mind having back: the casting of recognizable TV actors in unlikely roles. One year later, Priestley’s Beverly Hills 90210 cohort Luke Perry would deliver the performance of his career opposite a sensational Ashley Judd in John McNaughton’s neglected low-budget true-crime tale Normal Life.

Priestley pushes deadpan to dangerous levels as Cosmo, a man-child who is essentially the ward of an unseen gangster. He’s perfectly content working as a bookie, seeing perfunctory prostitute Janeane Garofalo on the company dime, and living in the basement of a retirement home. (Cosmo’s dire digs are a triumph of production design, from the outdated appliances to the hideous mossy green stairs.) But when Cosmo’s benefactor dies, he’s forced into a new role in the organization: trigger man. The transition starts with an internship at the feet of the current holder of the position, the affable Steve (Peter Riegert).

Riegert is the rare actor who can mine humor out of being the voice of reason. Every few years he uses this gift to deliver a peerless comic turn. Local Hero will forever be the best known of these, but in Coldblooded he offers one of the great lost performances of the 1990s. His Steve is a cheerful tummler, eager to have a protégé to whom he can pass along his wisdom even though he knows it will mean his eventual replacement. He’s forthright about his profession, complete with little jokes he’s worked out – “Guns don’t kill people, we do,” followed by a used car salesman’s hearty chuckle – and helpful hints offered in front of victims. Riegert relishes the details of Steve’s middle class life: the procession of sports shirts that are a shade too gaudy, the petty grudges against the organization’s other men, the obsession with his car. To this day I recall Riegert’s precise pronunciation of “Cadillac Sedan de Ville” and his line about occasionally reading the newspaper behind the wheel in his driveway. But additional grace notes trace Steve’s slow unraveling, culminating in an authentically disturbing drunken late-night phone call with Cosmo that Steve can’t recall the following day.

Cosmo’s efforts to deal with the stresses of the position – including his natural aptitude for it – lead him to yoga and an instructor (Kimberly Williams) who needs to be rescued from loutish lover Josh Charles. Priestley plays his character as a down-market version of Peter Sellers in Being There in these scenes, Cosmo’s inexperience with women rendering him perfect boyfriend material. Case in point: his surrendering the TV remote to his paramour, the contemporary equivalent of a knight laying down his sword.

Coldblooded unfolds in a strangely depopulated Los Angeles reminiscent of a hipster hit man film from an earlier generation, Murder by Contract. The small cast, including Robert Loggia as the new capo, forces the plot to become somewhat mechanical. And no professional killer would use his own car on jobs, especially when, like Steve, he has everything in his ride set just the way he likes it. Coldblooded may ultimately seem like a slight film. But its easygoing charm and Priestley’s moving, minimalist performance coupled with Riegert’s richly nuanced one give it more heft than many of the trendy favorites of the era.