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You know, I think you may have the delusion you’re still a police officer.

Heaven’s Prisoners
(1996)

(SPOILERS) At the time, it seemed Alec Baldwin was struggling desperately to find suitable star vehicles, and the public were having none of it. Such that, come 1997, he was playing second fiddle to Anthony Hopkins and Bruce Willis, and in no time at all had segued to the beefy supporting player we now know so well from numerous indistinguishable roles. That, and inane SNL appearances. But there was a window, post- being replaced by Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan, when he still had sufficient cachet to secure a series of bids for bona fide leading man status. Heaven’s Prisoners is the final such and probably the most interesting, even if it’s somewhat hobbled by having too much, rather than too little, story.

Giacano: The man may have been asleep, but that’s before you crashed an airplane on top of his fucking head and woke him up. Guys like that, you wake them up, they don’t go back to sleep so easy.

I say most interesting. Baldwin’s best lead remains Miami Blues, which failed to capitalise on Jack Ryan despite being release only six weeks later (too soon?) He then variously tried his hand at romantic comedy (costly disaster The Marrying Man with soon-to-be wife Kim Basinger, Prelude to a Kiss), pulp superhero fare (The Shadow), an action thriller remake (The Getaway, with now wife Kim Basinger) and courtroom drama (Ghosts of Mississippi). Amongst these, none of them very successful and some markedly un-so, he also found time for a couple of villainous turns that would more typify where his career was heading (Malice, The Juror).

Dautrieve: Can’t stop being a homicide detective, can you?

Perhaps he could see the writing on the wall. He produced Heaven’s Prisoners, an adaptation of the second in James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series of novels (numbering 23 at last count, and rising; Tommy Lee Jones starred as Robicheaux in another, In the Electric Mist, in 2009). He also had high hopes that he’d be able to segue the character into a whole series of movies. It isn’t hard to see why, as there are numerous hard-boiled positives to this neo-noir, and the character, an ex-cop with demons, would probably work very well in a TV show (the number of decent mystery/detective novel characters that haven’t been turned into TV shows after floundering in big screen versions is crazy). As a movie, though, Heaven’s Prisoners can’t get past a series of structural and character problems that cripple its pace and momentum.

Bubba: I am one guy. I am not a crimewave.

Yes, you can have a protagonist who is a recovering alcoholic (and in the novel Vietnam veteran) ex-cop, one who adopts a Salvadoran girl and then plunges into despair after his wife is shotgunned by assassins out to get him. But you have to be very careful the scales don’t tip irrevocably towards indulgent introspection at the expense of pushing the story forward. As a two-hour movie, there’s just too much to distract from Dave’s investigation into the whos and hows and whys of the crash of a drug smuggler’s plane in the Louisiana swamplands.

Claudette: Did you like my butterfly?
Dave: I didn’t notice it.
Claudette: Sure you did.

Heaven’s Prisoners’ first hour is an engaging slow burn, even given the need for Dave (Baldwin) and Annie (Kelly Lynch) to focus on caring for a moppet (Samantha Lagpacan). The plane crash, despite some very ropey effects work, is a well-constructed sequence. And Dave looking up old haunts and contacts (Mary Stuart Masterson’s unlikely stripper Robin, Eric Roberts on towering scenery-chewing form as old school friend and braided drug kingpin Bubba Rocque) while warned off by the DEA (Vondie Curtis-Hall as the witty Minos P Dautrieve) keeps things edging forward. The New Orleans heat is a personality in itself, and there is serviceable setting up of targets and suspects including Teri Hatcher flashing her butterfly as Bubba’s wife Claudette and a marvellously intimidating Joe Viterelli as mob boss Didi Giancano (previously in director Phil Joanou’s State of Grace, but likely to be seen in any given ’90s movie featuring a mobster).

Robin: It looked worse than it was, on account of the cherry juice and all.

The problem is, in being true to the source material, Joanou and screenwriters Harley Peyton (formerly of Twin Peaks) and Scott Frank (in the first flush of success following Dead Again, Malice and Get Shorty) cut the movie off in something approaching its stride when Annie is blown away. Dave turns to the bottle just when you need him to show off his skillz and opt out of a successful line in being convincingly beaten up. He’s also given information rather than having to dazzle us with his nous in tracking down the assassins. Robin showing up as a platonic co-parent of Alafair is a further indication that this would have been better as a serialised story than a movie.

Dave: He was one of those guys eating lightbulbs and pushing thumb tacks into his kneecaps.

There’s also the issue of Joanou’s music video guy background being often rather intrusively evident. That can be fine for flashy Bruckheimer nonsense (or Final Analysis), and he certainly captures a diffuse, smoky and sweaty milieu, but it isn’t always so appropriate for this kind of pulp noir (I can’t help think George Armitage would have been a better fit, although he and Baldwin already had one flop together). You’ll be hoping never to see another atmospherically-lit ceiling fan.

Dave: Hey, you’re getting in my face, partner.
Jerry: So?
Dave: So right about now, I’m thinking your head would make a really nice toilet brush.

On the plus side, Baldwin is giving it his all, and when he’s doing that wired, determined thing that surfaces here intermittently, you really want to see him steamroller through the proceedings (rather than flopping into a drunk act). He and Roberts have tremendous chemistry/ tension going on (in a way Gibson and Russell never quite mustered with Tequila Sunrise’s similarly different sides of the tracks premise). When they’re on screen together, Heaven’s Prisoners is firing on all cylinders. You can find reviews on IMDB that rate the movie only for Hatcher’s entrance scene, and others that roast her performance; she’s solid, but the Claudette part is a fairly standard duplicitous femme fatale one. Added to which, it’s foisted with the highly unlikely notion that the savvy mob boss would trust her taking charge of Bubba’s business. Masterson has some fun, Lynch doesn’t, and Curtis-Hall enjoys some good lines.

Giancano: I know Dave Robicheaux too. And for a long time, the man’s been a fucking massive migraine to all of us in New Orleans.

All the necessaries are lined up here, then, but Heaven’s Prisoners tries to do too much, and in doing so breaks the back of the mystery’s narrative tension. I’d like to have seen Baldwin in the role again, but there was no chance when it barely scraped back a fifth of its budget. Probably one to see in a triple bill with The Shadow and The Getaway and ponder the star attraction Baldwin might have been.


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