Peter Medak’s Romeo Is Bleeding opens on a traditional noir image of a bar shot from the vantage point of the floor so that we can see the slowly spinning ceiling fan, which familiarly connotes lazy, humid, festering danger that’s rooted in stifled sexual hunger. A man (Gary Oldman) enters the bar, and we learn that his name was once Jack Grimaldi, and he has a woeful crime story to tell of how he got to this Nowheresville. The bar is empty, so he talks to us in purplish oration that’s meant to be taken either facetiously or seriously depending on the moment, complementing Medak’s derivative, flippant stylishness. Jack was a cop in New York City once, married to a beautiful woman (Annabella Sciorra), though he openly slept with whoever else crossed his periphery, while selling criminal witnesses out to the mob for hefty stacks of cash.
Jack is one of Oldman’s 1990s-era sleazeballs, then, which he often played with a distinctively zealous and entitled sense of self-loathing that’s exhilarating when provided a supportive context (as in True Romance) and exhausting when allowed to run roughshod over a production as its own justification. Initially, it appears that Medak and Oldman have found a balance for the actor’s gonzo tendencies, as Romeo Is Bleeding resists much plotting, following Jack as he roams about trying to satiate his desires, which include a craving for role-play and kink, allowing Oldman room to luxuriate in his character’s eccentric piggishness. It’s evident that Jack longs to be dominated, but neither his wife nor his predominant mistress (Juliette Lewis) appear to have the constitution to ride him the way he longs to be ridden, figuratively and literally. Which is to say that he’s richly due the kind of comeuppance that only a femme fatale can provide.
At its best, Romeo Is Bleeding understands the fatalism of noir as rooted in male sexual frustration as an extension of the notion that a man can grow so restless, bored, and lonely that he’s willing to die merely to be fulfilled just once by the ultimate of what life can offer—i.e. the ultimate of sex. Money is chased in noirs, but rarely matters. Men assume in these films, as they do in real life, that money is required to achieve sex, or at least sex with the phenomenal women who would never look twice at working-class schnooks like them. Cue the entrance of Mona Demarkov (Lena Olin), a gorgeous assassin of Russian heritage who’s taking down the mob that employs Jack, locking these urban warriors in a dance of fornication and death.
The film’s chief pleasure springs from watching Olin unexpectedly upstage Oldman, an actor who seemed incapable of being upstaged at this point in his career. Mona, with her long legs, full lips, and reddish hair, resembles a lithe, live-action Jessica Rabbit—an association that might be intentionally courted given the film’s lack of subtlety. Mona is something relatively rare for noir: a heavily fetishized object who’s also accorded the stature of her own fetishism. In Romeo Is Bleeding, the woman’s sexual appetite has more agency than the man’s, but the sex is still just business per the paranoid and misogynistic tradition of noir. That sex is business is a turn-on for both parties, as the film refreshingly understands that men aren’t the only gender who objectifies.
Jack and Mona go at it nearly at first sight, as he’s holding her as a suspect in a police flophouse. Per her wont throughout much of Romeo Is Bleeding, Mona wears a pinstripe blazer directly over garters, stockings, and tight, frilly lingerie that often emphasizes her derriere. Every sex scene is about Jack’s humiliation, about the fact that a little of Mona only stokes his need for more. But nobody’s pretending this is love. Jack has finally realized a traditional male fantasy of sex as defined solely and simply by mercenary self-perpetuation—of sex as its own reward as a drug.
Romeo Is Bleeding reaches its high point when Mona wraps her legs around Jack’s head from the back seat of his car as he drives, strangling him in a pose that irrationally suggests reverse cunnilingus, causing him to crash, then writhing out of the destroyed car handcuffed as the physical exertion scrunches up her clothes to accentuate her body. The film was written by a woman, Hilary Henkin, and its pervading objectification, particularly in this scene, is intended to flatter as well as detonate male fantasies, quasi-ironically celebrating a woman as she hijacks a male-driven genre. Mona takes over the second half of the narrative as an un-killable demon incapable of being out-maneuvered—and that’s precisely why the film grows so dull and weightless. Once Jack and Mona settle into a pattern, there’s no sense of escalation or variation in their kill, stalk, and fuck tactics, as she proceeds to relentlessly work him over in a series of plot twists that are so absurd they’re inscrutable. The foundation drops out from under Oldman and Olin, leaving them awash in overripe shtick that’s only half a step away from the parody of Fatal Instinct.
The image boasts a rich palette of intentionally faded colors, strong grain structure, and dense texture, particularly in the close-ups of objects and faces in the foreground of many shots. This detail is especially important to the sex scenes, as one’s allowed to discern the pores in the skin of the participants, as well as the shiny surfaces of objects like handcuffs and assorted strap-on gear, intensifying the tone of fetishistic reverie. Backgrounds are a little less consistently rendered, as the blacks of certain shadows appear inky, but this is a minor occurrence. The soundtrack informs the action sound effects with memorable palpability and the score with robustly jazzy body.
Julie Kirgo’s essay persuasively examines how Romeo Is Bleeding wrestles with gender roles in the film noir. Otherwise, this is a slim package, with just a couple of trailers and an isolated score track, which is disappointing considering the terrific audio commentaries for which Twilight Time is known.
No, Romeo Is Bleeding isn’t quite a hidden gem unjustly underrated by critics at the time of its release, though it does project an aura of obsessive self-consciousness that occasionally suggests the superior film that eluded its creators.