You can count Joe Pesci’s star vehicles on one hand, and people will tell you My Cousin Vinny is the only worthwhile title. Don’t believe it. Just when his post-Goodfellas bankability was starting to wane, and the Lethal Weapon and Home Alone franchises had lost their nineties-defining luster, Pesci landed the lead in 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag, the most high-concept action-comedy this side of Snakes on a Plane. Written and directed by Tom Schulman, who won an Oscar for his snuggly script for Dead Poets Society, and otherwise penned a lot of family-friendly stuff like Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, this is the work of a debut director itching to access his inner mafioso, but perhaps not quite knowing how. Where to start? Well, with a mob hit, of course—err, make that eight mob hits. Tommy (Pesci) is an old-school gangster hired by Benny (Joe Basile) and Rico (Anthony Mangano) to deliver the titular parcel to a boss named Big Sep (Howard George), who’d better get his heads within 24 hours or “more are gonna roll, capiche?” Tommy flies commercial air with his bag full of noggins, getting past security by slipping a handgun into an innocent woman’s pocket, then nudging his luggage across the floor amid the metal-detector diversion (ahh, 1997). He then takes a seat beside Charlie (Andy Corneau), your typical square who happens to have Tommy’s very same bag. Needless to say, when Tommy is forced to check his duffel due to its massive size (and the ironic fact that a medic needs to store live human organs in his overhead compartment), the wiseguy and the wimp eventually end up with each other’s goods, making things extra awkward for Charlie when he goes to meet girlfriend Laurie’s (Kristy Swanson) parents.
More than anything, 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag is a testament to how entertaining it is to simply watch Pesci get royally pissed. Throughout the movie, Schulman sets Pesci up with ample opportunities to unleash his remorseless venom, whether it’s telling off airport clientele, lambasting impatient folks in line for the pay phone, or comically torturing Charlie’s Bethesda University pals, Ernie (David Spade) and Steve (Todd Louiso), whom he tracks down when on the hunt for his precious heads. Everyone, especially Ernie, a med student studying neurology, tries to pull one over on Tommy, presuming the thug is a few bullets short of a full clip. But Tommy is always ahead of their belittling mockery, and “Don’t get cute with me, asshole” is a favored phrase. 8 Heads may be sympathetic toward the misunderstood mobster (a theme that runs trhough the entire film), but it’s not exactly sensitive when it comes to those south of the border. Charlie and Laurie are vacationing in Mexico with Charlie’s soon-to-be in-laws, Annette and Dick (the ever-tanned Dyan Cannon and George Hamilton), and their stay is littered with comic, stereotypical slurs directed at the natives. Charlie—who, as played by Corneau, couldn’t be whiter if he ran a green market and a Gap franchise—proves the worst offender, masking his alarm at a bag full of heads by saying he ate a hot pepper, and dancing to the words “enchilada.” He tells Laurie not to call the police because “they have no laws here” and “they’ll turn me into a taco,” and when Laurie learns there’s no FedEx at their disposal, she tells Charlie to “Mex-Ex” the body parts.
And yet, while these white-centric elements may be on the insensitive side, it’s hard to fault a film for being offensive when that’s its basic M.O. 8 Heads follows a rather standard script structure, and it finds its moral center in Charlie (not to mention Steve, who’s none too thrilled when Ernie and Tommy start replacing missing heads with those from Bethesda’s cryogenics lab), but it’s otherwise a pitch-dark comedy, from the way it makes light of a grisly MacGuffin to its unrestrained use of “head” puns (the first Austin Powers film, which also had fun with the latter in a notable scene, was released one month after this movie). If there are two things viewers are likely to remember most about 8 Heads, they’re Fern Bennett (the late Ernestine Mercer), Dick’s mother who flies to Mexico to help with bail when her son is caught with a head and arrested, and the “singing heads sequence,” wherein Tommy dreams that his employers’ decapitated victims are crooning a rendition of “Mr. Sandman.” The former must be one of cinema’s most shameless examples of exploiting an old person’s wicked vocabulary for laughs. Fern’s contribution to the plot goes nowhere; she is there to make you guffaw at what obscenities spew from her mouth, like “cat piss” and “watch your fuckin’ language.” It’s hilarious, especially when Fern refers to Dick’s Mexican-prison torture as “electricity on his dillywacker,” but it’s a bunch of cheap, transparent laughs, capped off with Tommy literally throwing Fern out of a van and off a cliff (seriously). The dream scene gets derided, as does the the film itself—brutally, but it’s one of the gonzo bits that makes the movie stand out. The heads start singing in harmony like an eight-man barbershop quartet, while their bodies start crashing through Tommy’s motel room walls. It’s like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video as directed by Sam Raimi, and hats off to Schulman for keeping it intact.
Schulman has never directed another movie, and his subsequent scripts, for films like Holy Man and Welcome to Mooseport, haven’t been much to applaud. But 8 Heads, flaws and all, is an undersung black comedy, dealing, perhaps even unwittingly, in the viral-like effects of criminal activity. [Spoilers ahead] Successfully reaching retirement and completing his One Last Job, Tommy gets away clean, and Charlie largely does too, aside from the irreversible corruption of having helped a mobster. But virtually no one else walks off unscathed. Steve completely loses his mind from the trauma of having to decapitate cadavers, Dick winds up bald with the word “Gringo” tattooed on his head, and Fern (who survived her fall) is trapped in a full body cast. It’s all staged as an amenable, neatly-tied ending, and it breezes along like many others, but there’s a nasty undercurrent that taints the proceedings, and that’s ultimately what makes the film a gem. Schulman had the balls to go balls-out with his harebrained conceit, and just as the film doesn’t apologize for anything, no one should feel inclined to apologize for liking it.