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Desperate Hours (1990)
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by Jack Sommersby

"A Waste of its Director's Time and Ours"
2 stars

Starts out well enough, it but soon turns ludicrous and unintentionally campy.

For the uninformed, director Michael Cimino gained the reputation as a wasteful megalomaniac by the Hollywood community after his notorious forty-four-million-dollar Heaven's Gate flopped at the box office in 1980 and caused the financial ruin of its financial backer, United Artists, shortly thereafter. Nearly four-hours long, it was an extraordinarily photographed period Western that, alas, was bereft of so much as a single good sequence to its credit. Cimino was so caught up in the visual grandeur of the project -- the exhausting attention to production-design detail, the beautiful but costly location shooting in the rugged Montana mountain regions, the insistence of shooting certain exteriors during the "golden hour" of sunset, the martinet-like control to achieve perfection -- that not only did the budget skyrocket from seven-and-a-half million to forty-four, but the story, instead of being served by the visuals, was overwhelmed by them, and the vague characterizations and idiot dialogue failed to provide the dramatic underpinnings that would've provided the audience something to get an emotional lock on. Heaven's Gate was beautiful to look at but uninvolving because Cimino wound up overscaling an already underscaled screenplay, and the result was (as critic Vincent Canby scathingly wrote) an unqualified disaster. But Cimino, who had previously written and directed 1974's excellent Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and co-wrote and directed the Oscar-winning (and vastly overrated) The Deer Hunter, was offered a comeback project by producer Dino De Laurentiis with 1985's crime yarn Year of the Dragon; and the result, while lacking in intelligent scripting yet positively bursting with so much filmmaking fervor that it managed to override the flaws in an orgiastic display of visuals and movement (a crucial element Heaven's Gate lacked), was smashingly entertaining -- an electrifying, overproduced roller-coaster ride you just couldn't take your eyes off of.

Cimino is best when having to rely on neither the behavioral plausibility of his characters nor any particular coherence to his stories -- he's too lacking in discipline and common sense to adhere to such rudimentary essentials. Hence: he's best when keeping things eye-popping and fast-moving in the midst of exotically beautiful locales (which is why his Dragon follow-up, 1987's The Sicilian, an adaptation of Mario Puzo's Italian gangster drama which consisted of too many talking heads and not enough action, was joyless and arid). So if there were a story scenario less compatible to his limited-but-undeniable talent, it would be the one in this pathetically written remake of the 1955 Humphrey Bogart thriller, Desperate Hours: that of recently escaped prison inmate Michael Bosworth (played by Mickey Rourke) and his two partners in crime -- the nervously anxious Wally (Elias Koteas) and dim-witted hulk Albert (David Morse) -- holding up in a suburban home in an affluent Salt Lake City neighborhood, with the family -- consisting of the Cornells, Tim (Anthony Hopkins), Nora (Mimi Rogers), and their teenage son and daughter -- held hostage. I haven't seen the 1955 version or the Broadway play it was based upon, but I strongly doubt either one is as innately stupid as this. Bosworth selects the house without checking it out beforehand, and for no other reason, really, except to await a call from his gorgeous blonde lawyer, Nancy Breyers (Kelly Lynch), who provided him with the gun in his courthouse breakout and is, naturally, being watched by the FBI. Most thrillers boast promising beginnings which eventually give way to preposterous follow-throughs, but what's truly fatal about Desperate Hours is not only does it have a preposterous beginning, but the follow-through (if this can be believed) is even more so. And Cimino couldn't be more out of his league here in dealing with the psychological battle of wits in a setting as spatially limited and domestic as this.

Here is a filmmaker who needs to tell a story visually and rhythmically (dramatically, Cimino's hopeless), and he's straitjacketed in this nondescriptly designed and lighted two-story house, where nothing but the familiar ensues: people shouting; people unexpectedly stopping by; people shouting; people attempting to signal outsiders; people shouting; and so on. Hopkins and Rogers are appealing as the victims, and they bring some suggestions of depth to their roles that isn't particularly necessary; they create too much in the way of emotional baggage to be incorporated into what is, essentially, pulpy material, and Cimino isn't the one to make anything wittily ironic out of a cheating husband mending the household's marital fissure through his eventual display of machismo -- it just comes off as a watered-down take on Peckinpah's Straw Dogs minus the taut staging. Rourke has no problem with projecting machismo (he's occasionally raw and sexy), and physically, he's all you could ask for in a screen villain (a suave-looking sociopath with good manners); but, alas, what he lacks is tension -- the threat of unpredictable violence percolating underneath -- and so he's left falling back on past mannerisms, and the performance goes nowhere, and thus neither does the film. Matters are further hampered by two quintessentially grating characters: the teenage daughter (Shawnee Smith), who's always mouthing off to the villains as if they were nerdy algebra teachers; and Lindsay Crouse's terrible performance as the in-charge FBI agent -- she comes down on her line readings so hard and self-consciously in the effort to exude authority that she comes off as if partaking in an SNL parody. And while I find Kelly Lynch to be one of the most beautiful actresses ever to grace the silver screen (not to mention, one of the most talented, as her spectacularly assured work in Drugstore Cowboy proved), Cimino's completely unjustifiable disrobings of her reek of clumsy sophomoric sexism (mostly because they're as ineptly presented as Ariane's full-frontal post-showering shot in Dragon).

Desperate Hours begins promisingly, though. The opening credits play out over an establishing shot of downtown Salt Lake, with ominous clouds hurriedly passing by and David Mansfield's robust music score revving us up for a pulse-pounding good time. And some of the ensuing sequences -- like a Jaguar tearing down a mountain road and coming to a stop in front of some truly gorgeous mountain scenery; the introduction of a chain-and-shackled Bosworth as he's led into the courtroom -- boast a graceful precision that gives the impression of a director who knows exactly what he's doing. But once the action settles into the Cornell home, tedium quickly sets in, where it's apparent Cimino's film sense is on vacation. Cimino's gone the predictable route of shooting in a non-widescreen ratio (1.85:1) instead of his usual widescreen one (2.35:1) in an attempt to elicit a claustrophobic feel (though debuting director Kevin Spacey gamely took the opposite approach in his inventively staged Albino Alligator), and the look is flattened-out and dull. Further, the spatial logistics of the house are ill-defined, with the recorded voices occasionally not matching up with where the actors are placed, and the juxtaposing clunky and nondescript -- we could be watching an industrial-training film for all we know. And topping it off is dialogue that's neither smart nor revealing, only forced and banal. To his credit, Cimino manages to elicit one beautiful moment: Albert, standing in a mountain stream, gun in hand, surrounded by cops, whistling along with a bird before sealing his fate. (It's as if the little boy in Cimino were absolutely teeming with the urge to go out and play and produce something beautiful rather than stay inside and draw.) But the majority of Desperate Hours is a poorly thought-out mess that zips along quickly enough but leaves little in the way of truly memorable moments behind. An overturned cup at a tea party would have made for more tantalizing cinema.

Cimino and Rourke fared much better together with 1985's mesmerizing "Year of the Dragon".

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=8345&reviewer=327
originally posted: 11/14/03 09:00:35
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User Comments

12/08/17 morris campbell tense but undone by weak 3rd act 2 stars
11/01/14 Mary Gard gratuitous in it's awfulness. 1 stars
11/19/06 Jeff Anderson Relentlessly campy & dull remake. Lynch looks great, but her role is a joke. BLAME CIMINO!! 1 stars
9/20/06 Burl Barer No one has mentioned the two obvious edits in the third act: that weaken the film. 4 stars
2/23/06 TB It just like the remake of Cape Fear 3 stars
3/02/05 Sugarfoot How could this crap be from the same guys who made the excellent Year Of The Dragon! 1 stars
10/31/04 MyGreenBed Talented cast that might of been interesting together in another film. 2 stars
4/08/04 sarah hi, the original wasn't even that good. why re-make it? 2 stars
11/27/03 John amateur hour 1 stars
11/13/03 tatum You'll cheer! For the criminals! 1 stars
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  05-Oct-1990 (R)


  19-Mar-1992 (M)

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