Skip to main content

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.


Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

The Krishna died of a broken finger? I mean, is that a homicide?

Miami Blues (1990) (SPOILERS) If the ‘90s crime movie formally set out its stall in 1992 with Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs , another movie very quietly got in there first at the beginning of the decade. Miami Blues picked up admiring reviews but went otherwise unnoticed on release, and even now remains under-recognised. The tale of “blithe psychopath” Federick J. Frenger, Jr., the girl whose heart he breaks and the detetive sergeant on his trail, director George Armitage’s adaptation of Charles Willeford’s novel wears a pitch black sense of humour and manages the difficult juggling act of being genuinely touching with it. It’s a little gem of a movie, perfectly formed and concisely told, one that more than deserves to rub shoulders with the better-known entries in its genre. One of the defining characteristics of Willeford’s work, it has been suggested , is that it doesn’t really fit into the crime genre; he comes from an angle of character rather than plot or h

Well, something’s broke on your daddy’s spaceship.

Apollo 13 (1995) (SPOILERS) The NASA propaganda movie to end all NASA propaganda movies. Their original conception of the perilous Apollo 13 mission deserves due credit in itself; what better way to bolster waning interest in slightly naff perambulations around a TV studio than to manufacture a crisis event, one emphasising the absurd fragility of the alleged non-terrestrial excursions and the indomitable force that is “science” in achieving them? Apollo 13 the lunar mission was tailor made for Apollo 13 the movie version – make believe the make-believe – and who could have been better to lead this fantasy ride than Guantanamo Hanks at his all-American popularity peak?

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

People still talk about Pandapocalypse 2002.

Turning Red (2022) (SPOILERS) Those wags at Pixar, eh? Yes, the most – actually, the only – impressive thing about Turning Red is the four-tiered wordplay of its title. Thirteen-year-old Mei (Rosalie Chiang) finds herself turning into a large red panda at emotive moments. She is also, simultaneously, riding the crimson wave for the first time. Further, as a teenager, she characteristically suffers from acute embarrassment (mostly due to the actions of her domineering mother Ming Lee, voiced by Sandra Oh). And finally, of course, Turning Red can be seen diligently spreading communist doctrine left, right and centre. To any political sensibility tuning in to Disney+, basically (so ones with either considerable or zero resistance to woke). Take a guess which of these isn’t getting press in reference to the movie? And by a process of elimination is probably what it it’s really about (you know in the same way most Pixars, as far back as Toy Story and Monsters, Inc . can be given an insi

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

You tampered with the universe, my friend.

The Music of Chance (1993) (SPOILERS) You won’t find many adaptations of Paul Auster’s novels. Original screenplays, yes, a couple of which he has directed himself. Terry Gilliam has occasionally mentioned Mr. Vertigo as in development. It was in development in 1995 too, when Philip Haas and Auster intended to bring it to the screen. Which means Auster presumably approved of Haas’ work on The Music of Chance (he also cameos). That would be understandable, as it makes for a fine, ambiguous movie, pregnant with meaning yet offering no unequivocal answers, and one that makes several key departures from the book yet crucially maintains a mesmerising, slow-burn lure.

I only know what I’ve been programmed to believe. But, of course, the same goes for you.

Raised by Wolves Season One (SPOILERS) Ridley Scott’s latest transhumanist tract is so stuffed with required lore, markers and programming, it’s a miracle it manages to tell a half-engaging story along the way. Aaron Guzikowski ( Prisoners ) is the credited creator, but it has the Ridders stamp of dour dystopia all over it, complete with Darius Wolski ( Prometheus ) cinematography setting the tone. Which means bleak grey skies, augmented by South Africa this time, rather than Iceland. Raised by Wolves is a reliable mix of wacko twist plotting and clumsy, slack-jawed messaging; like the Alien prequels, it will surely never be seen through to a conclusion, but as an agenda platform it’s never less than engaging (and also frequently, for the same reasons, exasperating).

You’re like a human mummy!

The Lost City (2022) (SPOILERS) Perhaps the most distressing part of The Lost City , a Romancing the Stone riff that appears to have been packaged by the Hollywood equivalent of a processed cheese plant lacking its primary ingredient (that would be additives), is the possibility that Daniel Radcliffe is the only viable actor left standing in Tinseltown. That’s if the suggestions at least two of the performers here – Sandra Bullock and Brad Pitt – are deep faked in some way, shape or form, and the other name – Channing Tatum – is serving hard atonement time. If the latter’s choices generally weren’t so abysmal and his talent in arears, I’d assume that was the only explanation for him showing up in this dreck.

Okay, just jump right into my nightmare, the water is warm.

Jerry Maguire  (1996) (SPOILERS) I didn’t much like Jerry Maguire at the time, which I suspect is intrinsically linked to the fact that I didn’t much like Tom Cruise at the time. I’m still not really a massive fan of either, but the latter at least made an effort to rein in his most irksome traits subsequently. Jerry Maguire , however, finds him drawing on the same “bag of tricks” that mystifyingly transfixed his fan base a decade before in Top Gun . Bonnie Hunt suggested the toughest part of the role was “ playing a character that doesn’t like Tom Cruise ”. I wouldn’t have had that problem. I do not like Tom and Jerry.