THE GOOD NEWS IS: the genre melodrama in all its variety is making a comeback in American film. Yes, cop pictures, films-noir, and private eye sagas are back following the failure of a slew of teen comedies, westerns, and serious "Oscar-bait" dramas, all presumed more commercial by an industry that generally felt melodrama had become the province of TV. "Blood Simple," "Witness," "Prizzi's Honor," and "Jagged Edge" have all contributed to a feeling in Hollywood that audiences want better and more adult stories in their theatrical diet. So be it.
The only bad news is that two current thrillers by past masters of this now resurrected form, William Friedkin (The French Connection) and Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde) do more to send the genre back to the graveyard than they do to set the spirit free. After watching To Live and Die in L.A. and Target, it doesn't take a film critic to see that Friedkin's style, once straightforward, has become hyperkinetic and trendy in this era of music videos, while Arthur Penn's more innovative and personal approach to filmmaking has become increasingly more traditional.
FRIEDKIN'S "HOT" STYLE, acknowledged to be one of the highlights of To Live and Die In L.A., is not a take-off of "Miami Vice," as some have said. Instead, the director has simply tried to cash in on a technique which he used before rock videos and "Miami Vice" even existed, in underrated films like Sorcerer and Cruising. The "look" in To Live and die in L.A., achieved in collaboration with cinematographer Robby Muller (Paris, Texas) and production designer Lilly Kilvert, is splashy and steamy, a meld of industrial wasteland and high-tech decor with a cumulative presence stronger than the characters and story. It is more powerful and yet more subtle than "Miami Vice" where loud musical scores drown out even gunshots.
The original novel, written by coscreenwriter Gerald Petievich (a former Treasury agent) was an absorbing tortoise-and-he-hare yarn about two separate teams of T-men on the trail of the same master counterfeiter. But Freidkin kills off the tortoise (a sympathetic older cop on the eve of his retirement) in the first reel to provide Chance, his amoral anti-hero, with a stock revenge motive; yet he then fails to develop this element of the story. He cut out the emotional heart and balance of the book, and you can only assume that this is exactly what he wanted to do. Freidkin is telling us once again that there is little distinction between the cops and the criminals--and he isn't telling us much more.
In Hollywood, where such an ungodly premium is placed on making characters "sympathetic," it would be refreshing to report that To Live and Die In L.A. was a major film by an idiosyncratic filmmaker that cuts past conventional morality, but alas, the shallow characters here do little more than illustrate a theme that would have worked better perking just below the surface than splattered all over it. The film may keep you somewhere near the edge of your seat while you're watching it, and there's some good street-smart dialogue and acting, but everything here is subordinated to Friedkin's bad-boy style of the world. It's just not much fun.
IN TARGET, Matt Dillon plays a boy who learns for the first time when his mother is kidnapped that his unassuming father was once a top CIA agent. They team up and go to Europe to try to rescue mom from the clutches of dad's old cold war enemies, rekindling their moribund relationship and earning one another's respect at each step of the way.
Consistent with his considerable humanistic impulses, Penn casts the story in the mold of a relationship drama between father and son, but the action soon takes over, and Penn simply can't keep his characters ahead of it. In a recent interview, Penn told the L.A. Reader he wanted to make a "popcorn" movie after the commercial failure of his Four Friends, but what's emerged was an unhappy hybrid of character and action. At unexpected moments, in well-observed snatches of behavior and individual shots, just enough character is conveyed and just enough emotional content to keep the audience aware of something more than the standard cloak-and-dagger thriller. And the plot does have a few well-chosen twists before it goes on cruise control and coasts to an unsatisfying climax--an extended last shot misfires badly as the reunited family is upstaged by an explosion in the background destroying the heavies in a fiery conflagration. But we are still left with a cloak-and-dagger drama with a subordinated and weak theme.
Gene Hackman dominated the film with sturdy professionalism. Dillon's characteristic sincerity and appeal come through in the close-ups at the beginning and end of the picture and in a funny, well-developed romantic interlude with a sexy young spy. On a more curious note, all the women in the film look alike, and one particular cut--from a shot of the girl spy to a matching angle of an older woman--dad's former lover--comes off as a jump-cut where the character suddenly ages 25 years.
BOTH FREIDKIN'S picture and Penn's boast elaborate set-piece car chases. Friedkin's French Connection- style wrong-way run on the L.A. freeways may be more spectualar, but Arthur Penn's chase scene, dismissed by most critics, is exciting in a precise, stripped-down way. It gets an equal measure of audience applause in the theatres, presumably because of rooting interest in the father-son duo at the heart of the film.
Penn's film is more likable than Friedkin's, but finally less interesting. Personal filmmaking, however shallow, takes the edge over Target's more formidable, corporate approach. In the great scheme of things, if there were a way to combine Friedkin's world view with Penn's compassion for his characters, the two films put together might have made a good picture.
Tim Hunter, former Arts Editor of The Crimson and director of the films Sylvester and Tex, is Peter Ivers Visiting Artist at Harvard. He wrote this review exclusively for The Crimson.