Friday, March 7, 2014

Desperate Hours

I had heard almost entirely negative things about Desperate Hours (1990), based on a novel and play by Joseph Hayes that also served as the basis for a movie starring Humphrey Bogart. But I remained intrigued. After all, it was directed by Michael Cimino, the filmmaker behind The Deer Hunter, and it stars performers I usually enjoy greatly, not just stars Mickey Rourke and Anthony Hopkins but also reliable character actors Elias Koteas and David Morse. So, I sat down and watched Desperate Hours, and while it's not the complete disaster I had expected, it's not very good, falling mostly into the realm of cliched melodrama, contrived suspense situations, and erratic plotting.

After breaking out of custody using a gun smuggled to him by his attorney, criminal "genius" Michael Bosworth (Rourke), along with his brother Wally (Koteas, looking like John Stamos from his Full House days) and his brother's buddy Albert (Morse, looking like a scruffier, thinner Nick Frost), heads to a random suburban house, where he takes the Cornell family hostage. The family includes the estranged husband Tim (Hopkins) and wife Nora (Mimi Rogers), along with their young son (Danny Gerard) and teenaged daughter (Shawnee Smith). Bosworth terrorizes the family while waiting for his attorney and lover Nancy (Kelly Lynch) to arrive. Meanwhile, FBI agent Brenda Chandler (Lindsay Crouse) plans to use Nancy to get to Bosworth.

In a pot boiler thriller like, it is absolutely essential the plotting be as tight as possible. The details of what the plan is, what's at stake, who all the players are and their roles are, and where every element and potential complication are must be conveyed. Not everything needs to be spelled out or revealed up front, but it is imperative of the filmmakers to present everything coherently so the audience can follow what's happening. Consider The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, which illustrates how the crooks seize the subway and take hostages and how important their timing is, or for a more action-oriented example, Die Hard, which gradually reveals the terrorists' scheme to use the involvement of the police and FBI to crack the safe in the building.

Unfortunately, this is where Desperate Hours goes off the rails. It's not that there are too many elements to keep track of; it's that many of these elements aren't presented in a coherent fashion. For example, when Albert leaves and dumps a body somewhere in the desert, we're told (not shown, a common occurrence in the film) the FBI has found the body, but Albert is still wandering lost in more or less the same spot.

Other problems arise from weird character behavior. Bosworth's plan of waiting for his lawyer really calls into question his being labeled a genius. Why didn't he wait for her in Mexico, out of the reach of the U.S. officials instead of taking hostages in an upper class neighborhood where the odd behavior he makes the Cornell family perform will stand out? Chandler's idea of tailing Nancy is to send two speeding cars chasing after her while following in a low-flying aircraft that's clearly visible; wouldn't it make more sense to let Nancy think she wasn't being followed so she'll take you right to who you're really after? Of course, Nancy is troublesome character; her change(s?) of heart seemingly takes place off screen and is otherwise unsupported.

The Cornells fair slightly better. Nothing they do is quite as ludicrously implausible, but they're all stock characters, and their arc - the family under siege that finds the strength to come together and fight back - is obvious from their very first scene.

This kind of material could be elevated by the right performances, but the actors, not helped by overwrought dialogue, can't make it happen. Hopkins is ok as the family patriarch, but  Koteas is wasted in a role that adds nothing while Morse does the best of the bunch; how his character exits the situation and the movie is downright bizarre. Rogers can't overcome the cliches of the role, the kids are fine for what little they have to do, but Lynch and Krouse, who seems like she belongs in another movie, are downright awful.

Sadly, the biggest letdown is Rourke as the criminal mastermind. This role seems like it would be a home run for him, but I was never convinced of his supposed genius or his romance with Nancy. Compare him to Robert Shaw or Alan Rickman in the aforementioned movies, and he's disappointingly uncharismatic. He's not a villain you enjoy hating; he's a just a jerk and a bully without much to back it up.  By the end, you just want him to go away.

Cimino brings some style with his direction. There are some nicely composed shots, both outdoors in the desert and mountains of Utah and inside the house, but without a firm grasp of the characters and plot, it's all for naught. Desperate Hours is a would-be pressure cooker that peters out instead of exploding to life.

No comments:

Post a Comment