Wednesday, March 3, 2010

To-do list unites strangers in 'Underworld'

Underworld (1997)
Starring; Denis Leary, Joe Mantegna, Annabella Sciorra and Larry Bishop
Director: Roger Christian
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Johnny Crown (Leary) is back on the streets after seven years in prison. Armed with a new name and a new outlook on life, he sets about tracking down everyone who had even the slightest involvement with the death of his gang-boss father. Along the way, he picks up the enigmatic Frank Gavilan (Mantegna), and, despite Gavilan's initial insistence that he doesn't know Johnny, their shared history--and shared destiny--is gradually revealed. Will Gavilan be added to the ever-growing number of dead bodies that Johnny is leaving in his wake, or does Gavilan fit somewhere else on Johnny's "Things To Do Tonight" list?

"Underworld" is a strange movie. The back cover on the DVD compares it to "Pulp Fiction" and "The Usual Suspects", but, aside from a never-ending stream of banter and fitting into the general category of a crime film, it resembles neither of those films. In fact, drawing that comparison does the movie a disservice... but given that Johnny Crown's name is misspelled on the back cover, I doubt the copywriter even cared enough to watch the entire movie.

This is a film that is ALMOST good... and although I am giving it a Six rating, it's on the verge of a being a Five. I think that another few passes on the script, or maybe some more work in the editing room, and it could have been a Seven or Eight. That same might also be true if the two main actors were capable of... well, more acting. I enjoy both Leary and Mantegna very much, but both are actors of limited range and neither really stretch themselves here.

Parts of the movie would have made more sense if it had been clearer sooner that Johnny and Frank really HAVE known each other since childhood; as things stand, a number of things seem very baffling, because Frank's assertion of not knowing who Johnny is seems genuine, while Johnny's continued talk about wanting to help Frank and being "the best friend ever" simply come across as so much insane, threatening chatter. (Mantegna being the rock-solid, always down-to-earth guy, and Leary always seeming like he's ready to snap and carve up a bus full of nuns with a knife.

The vagueness of Frank and Johnny's relationship is only part of what makes this film confusing to watch. There are a number of characters whose actions are so extreme that even rampant psychosis can't explain it; if the characters really were as crazy as they come across, they would have been dead long before they appeared on screen in the film. Some of it (like the going-ons at a nightclub called the Blue Danube) feels more like a parody of this sort of film noir/crime drama film than seems right for what surrounds it. Parts of the ending have the same sort of parody feel to them.

The one thing that runs through all of "Underworld" is a strange, dreamlike quality. The randomness with which things happen and the characters move from encounter to encounter, the bizarreness of how just about every character in the film behaves (even bedrock Joe Mantegna... because he's almost too calm and unemotional through everything), and the lack of apparent consequence to anything that happens... it all adds up to a film that has a very unreal quality about it. And that unreal quality ends up making the film worth watching, despite the unevenness in how it treats its subject matter.

I give this film a cautious recommendation. It's not a great movie, but it's worth seeing for the odd sense of dreaminess it manages to invoke throughout. I think it's worth seeing if you like crime dramas or quirky movies of any genre. (It's also worth it if you like Leary's standard schtick.)

As of this writing, "Underworld" is out of print both on DVD and VHS.

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