by Jack Sommersby
A fun B-movie with no pretentions.Co-written and executive produced by Halloween's John Carpenter, Black Moon Rising is a whole lot of fun. Absurd, over-the-top, and just plain nutso in places, it offers up the kind of B-movie entertainment that goes down like a cold, refreshing drink of water on a hot Texas afternoon. Taking into account Carpenter's participation, one might surmise from the title that it refers to werewolves; actually, it refers to an experimental car called the "Black Moon", which is about three feet high, looks like a compressed DeLorean, runs on tap water, and can reach speeds of excess of 300 m.p.h. (And no, fans of the Carpenter-directed horror pic Christine, it's not demonically possessed.) The Black Moon is being transported from Las Vegas to Los Angeles, where its owners hope to secure financing from an Italian auto manufacturer. But before it can arrive there, high-tech, government-employed thief Tommy Lee Jones (known simply as "Quint") hides a stolen audio tape inside the car while at a filling station so as not to get caught with by its rightful owner (ex-rocker Lee Ving -- in coat and tie, no less!) before delivering it to his superior (ex-footballer Bubba Smith, also clad in a suit). But that's not all. For once the car does get to L.A., it's stolen by another thief, Nina ( Linda Hamilton), who's part of a major auto-theft ring operating out of a downtown skyscraper, which is headed by a sinister dude named Ryland (Robert Vaughn). To cut right to the chase (no pun intended), Quint and Nina (who's caught Ryland's ire) and the car's owners plan an elaborate break-in to get the Black Moon out of the skyscraper, which is nothing less than a (seemingly) impenetrable fortress.
"A Stylish Thriller Served up Ice-Cold"
To thoroughly enjoy Black Moon Rising, you needn't take any of it the least bit seriously -- something the director, Harley Cokliss, has counted on. A pretty fair technician, Cokliss, whose follow-up to this was the entertaining Burt Reynolds actioner Malone, is thankfully unfussy. He's not much for fancy camera set-ups, and he doesn't try to spruce up the tacky material to an inappropriately grandiose level. Rather, he serves the film dilligently, placing the camera exactly where need be with a touch of style and, more importantly, a well-rounded film sense as to what will and will not play. Outrageousness looms throughout, but Cokliss keeps it in check, allowing it to gently seep into a given situation without it dissipating the brutal hard edge he's so cannily managed to work up. The tone of Black Moon Rising is impersonal and icy, which may seem alienating to some but is actually entirely fitting to a B-movie, where the characters are anything but warm, outgoing, or overly genteel. Misha Suslov's drop-dead gorgeous cinematography, rich with blues, purples, and glossy blacks, further enhances this. Cokliss' sure handling of things is evident from the very first scene, which finds Quint calmly facing down a young punk who's come into a convenience store to rob it. ("This something new for you, son?" "The cameras are right up there. How about a nice 8 X 10 while you're at it?") In lesser hands, a scene like this could have been made tedious by overstressing the obvious; in Cokliss' capable mitts, it sings nothing but pleasing high notes. By the same token, he's also willing to give the trashier aspects their due: the low-angle close-ups of villainous Vaughn; the elaborate car chases through city streets which never garner attention from the cops; the baddies' inability to shoot straight; the intentional campy line readings ("I'm going to take all the heat that comes down on me, and I'm going transfer it to your body."); all are put up there on the screen with complete and utter affection for their B-movie roots.
As assured as the direction and stunt coordination are, however, without Tommy Lee Jones' bountiful reserves of good humor, Black Moon Rising would still be somewhat effective, though you'd be left with little reason to care. As a critic once noted, Jones is a star in a character actor's body, meaning he's absent of traditional good looks yet possesses the necessary talent and charisma to hold your attention on the screen. Like Willem Dafoe in 1992's underrated White Sands, Jones makes for a refreshing kind of action hero being that he doesn't look the part. Quint comes off like a thinker, an intelligent man who, if necessary, will shoot and fight but would rather get through it all without resorting to violence. Occasionally, he has no choice, and when violence does manage to erupt, he's ready, but not always successful. There's an absolutely brutal scene where Quint gets the living hell kicked out of him by Ving and his two henchmen; instead of licking his wounds and appearing power-fresh the next morning, Quint spends the rest of the movie looking beat-up, moaning and groaning, and barely able to lift one leg over the skyscraper's roof for the big break-in. The aforementioned opening scene found him cocky and taut; the ending one finds him unable to even kiss Nina, his newfound lover, without wincing from the pain.
Linda Hamilton, an actress who never got due recognition for her outstanding, emotionally fluid work in The Terminator, matches up well with Jones, speaks her lines in an appealingly tough manner yet still succeeds at uncovering a touch of vulnerability. When Quint approaches Nina at a single's bar, she brushes him off with a cold look; when she's outside and sees that he hasn't followed her out, her tough facade instantly crumbles. I've always attested that you can have as many screeching car chases and blood-and-guts shootouts as you so desire, but if interesting and vivid characters aren't in the midst of that action, than it all comes off as hollow and mechanical, and the audience could really give a damn about any of it, aside from experiencing an occasional motor reflex thrill (a distinct problem I had with Terminator 2). In Black Moon Rising, the sequences leading up to the action manage to hold us because, thanks to the characters, we're interested in their motives, which provides the story with considerable narrative drive and a real sense of immediacy. Please, though, don't even think you're in store for a plausible solution to the main conflict, for the grand finale, involving getting the Black Moon out of that skyscraper, is a doozy. When the initial plan goes awry, and driving the car out is an impossibility, an even more impossible plan is hatched at the last minute. I wouldn't dare let loose the details, except to relay that there's another skyscraper less than fifty yards away, the car is not on the ground floor, and a certain word from the film's title comes to mind. Could it be "rising"?This is an underseen little goodie worth seeking out.
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originally posted: 03/09/03 14:19:03