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.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke (the answer is: Mad Max: Fury Road )? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

It’ll be like living in the top drawer of a glass box.

Someone’s Watching Me! (1978) (SPOILERS) The first of a pair of TV movies John Carpenter directed in the 1970s, but Someone’s Watching Me! is more affiliated, in genre terms, to his breakout hit ( Halloween ) and reasonably successful writing job ( The Eyes of Laura Mars ) of the same year than the also-small-screen Elvis . Carpenter wrote a slew of gun-for-hire scripts during this period – some of which went on to see the twilight of day during the 1990s – so directing Someone’s Watching Me! was not a given. It’s well-enough made and has its moments of suspense, but you sorely miss a signature Carpenter theme – it was by Harry Sukman, his penultimate work, the final being Salem’s Lot – and it really does feel very TV movie-ish.

As in the hokey kids’ show guy?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t think Mr Rogers could have been any creepier had Kevin Spacey played him. It isn’t just the baggage Tom Hanks brings, and whether or not he’s the adrenochrome lord to the stars and/or in Guantanamo and/or dead and/or going to make a perfectly dreadful Colonel Tom Parker and an equally awful Geppetto; it’s that his performance is so constipated and mannered an imitation of Mr Rogers’ genuineness that this “biopic” takes on a fundamentally sinister turn. His every scene with a youngster isn’t so much exuding benevolent empathy as suggestive of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ’s Child Catcher let loose in a TV studio (and again, this bodes well for Geppetto). Extend that to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood ’s conceit, that Mr Rogers’ life is one of a sociopathic shrink milking angst from his victims/patients in order to get some kind of satiating high – a bit like a rejuvenating drug, on that score – and you have a deeply unsettli

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

By whom will this be rectified? Your ridiculously ineffectual assassins?

The X-Files 3.2: Paperclip Paperclip recovers ground after The Blessing Way stumbled slightly in its detour, and does so with some of the series’ most compelling dramatics so far. As well as more of Albert performing prayer rituals for the sick (perhaps we could spend some time with the poor guy over breakfast, or going to the movies? No, all he’s allowed is stock Native American mysticism).

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012) The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.

Somewhere out there is a lady who I think will never be a nun.

The Sound of Music (1965) (SPOILERS) One of the most successful movies ever made – and the most successful musical – The Sound of Music has earned probably quite enough unfiltered adulation over the years to drown out the dissenting voices, those that denounce it as an inveterately saccharine, hollow confection warranting no truck. It’s certainly true that there are impossibly nice and wholesome elements here, from Julie Andrews’ career-dooming stereotype governess to the seven sonorous children more than willing to dress up in old curtains and join her gallivanting troupe. Whether the consequence is something insidious in its infectious spirit is debatable, but I’ll admit that it manages to ensnare me. I don’t think I’d seen the movie in its entirety since I was a kid, and maybe that formativeness is a key brainwashing facet of its appeal, but it retains its essential lustre just the same.