Criminally Minded Medak
Forty-four years ago this month heralded the London premieres of two daring and provocative movie adaptations of black comedy plays that challenged and yet cheered audiences with their skillful juggling of humor, desperation, social commentary, tragic underpinnings and in the case of one, sheer madness, both adapted for the screen by their respective playwrights. Peter Nichols’ A Day in the Death of Joe Egg presented the plight of a married couple (Alan Bates and Janet Suzman) who cope with their brain-dead daughter’s hopeless condition by head games and self-deceptions to ward off hopelessness. Peter Barnes’ The Ruling Class pries open the Pandora’s Box of a titled family whose heir-apparent (Oscar® nominee Peter O’Toole) to a seat in the House of Lords is a visionary nutcase who believes he is Jesus Christ and whose delusions threaten to tip the aristocratic apple cart. Both were directed by the same man, Hungarian-born Peter Medak,who would go on to helm an impressive body of TV and movie work that upended genre expectations, a diverse mix wide enough to encompass a chilling ghost story of uncommon force (The Changeling) or zesty swashbuckler spoofery (Zorro, the Gay Blade). In 1990, he pivoted toward crime – with gangbuster results. The first two of the three badass films were based on true British history. The Krays (1990) was a scalding yet stylish recreation of the notorious twin-brother mobsters’ rise and fall in the swinging and bloody ’60s, with electrifying performances by Spandau Ballet sibling musicians Gary and Martin Kemp and a delicious Billie Whitelaw as their doting mother. Like Twilight Time’s recent release of 10 Rillington Place, Let Him Have It (1991) concerned itself with a historic 1953 British case of legal injustice, the tale of Derek Bentley (future Doctor Who Christopher Eccleston in his film debut), an illiterate, epileptic young man who falls into the criminal life and is sentenced to hang for a murder a younger confederate committed. Also like 10 Rillington Place, Let Him Have It, which also boasted sterling work by Tom Courtenay, Tom Bell, Eileen Atkins, Claire Holman and Clive Revill, set in motion efforts to redress an unjust conviction: Bentley was officially pardoned seven years after the film’s release. Soon afterward came Medak’s highest octane outside-the-law caper yet, a ferocious fever dream of a contemporary New York film noir shot on location, not a true story in the least, but a truly swoony, liberally bloody update of the unsuspecting chump-vs.-the brainy, sexy femme fatale yarn. In Romeo Is Bleeding (1993), a sleazy NYPD detective (Gary Oldman), a self-styled ladies’ man with a wife (Annabella Sciorra), a mistress (Juliette Lewis) and dreams of swagger and wealth inspired by the flashy gangsters in his orbit, divides his time on the job upholding the law – and the interests of a Mafia don (Roy Scheider). But the hound with a badge finally meets a lethal lady he can’t seduce or flimflam, sirenlike Russian hitwoman Lena Olin, and he’s headed for a world of hurt from all sides. Medak, who deftly balanced shock and understatement in The Krays and Let Him Have It, lets loose the dogs of sordid sex and whiplash violence to establish an all-American world of ambition and avarice. Partnering him in this criminal activity are the biting and batty screenplay by Hilary Henkin (Fatal Beauty, Wag the Dog), the eerily intense cinematography of Dariusz Wolski (Alice in Wonderland, The Martian) and the pulsating score by the versatile Mark Isham (A River Runs Through It, Fly Away Home). Whether you find Romeo Is Bleeding a Tarantinoesque treat or an over-the-top discombobulation, Medak, proven juggler of many cinematic moods, certainly lets us have it. Romeo Is Bleeding gets turned loose on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray June 14. Preorders open June 1.