THE FILM 4/5
“He fed the hole…
It was the only thing he knew how to make happy.”
Romeo Is Bleeding (1993), directed by Peter Medak from a screenplay by Hilary Henkin, is a rough-and-tumble neo-noir starring Gary Oldman as a ruthless, ambitious hood who gets in over his head when he falls for the ultimate femme fatale (Lena Olin). Also starring Roy Scheider, Annabella Sciorra, and Juliette Lewis, the film is highlighted by an elegant Mark Isham score, available on this Twilight Time release as an isolated track.
Filmmaker Peter Medak (Zorro, the Gay Blade; The Ruling Class) isn’t the only director who would have been capable of telling a story like Romeo is Bleeding, but he is likely one of the few whose sensibilities and aesthetic would have resulted in the film being worthy of discussion more than twenty years after its release. Twilight Time calls Romeo is Bleeding a neo-noir, which is a good starting off point, but if other films, like Memento or Blade Runner, are referred to as the same, than Romeo is Bleeding deserves another class entirely.
How about insane-noir? Psycho-noir? Kitchen-sink-noir?
I’m not good at word play, but you get the idea.
Whatever term we concoct, Romeo is Bleeding blows the doors off the film-noir genre as we know it, injecting a European-style level of debauchery usually reserved for either art-house fare or 42nd Street. Many of the typical aspects of noir are heightened; the damaged lead, the femme fatale, the trouble in which he finds himself–it’s all so turned up beyond eleven that it comes dangerously close to coming off as satire, but Medak keeps things evenly keeled so that the wheels only threaten to come off, instead of doing so.
Sidestepping the plot (because it can barely be addressed without giving away its best twists and turns), Romeo is Bleeding is a film brought to life by its phenomenal cast.
Gary Oldman’s Grimaldi isn’t just a flawed man looking for redemption–he’s a slimy scumbag who can do all manner of questionable things as a husband, a man, and a cop, but go home at the end of the night to his wife (Annabella Sciorra) who it would seem he really does love. But that love doesn’t keep him from the arms of his on-the-side girlfriend (Juliette Lewis), or from taking on-the-side work from the mafia by giving away the locations of protected witnesses for $65,000 a pop. Giving Grimaldi life is the consistently watchable Gary Oldman, infusing his performance with certain shades of megalomania, the full dose of which we wouldn’t experience until his very next film, Léon. At this point in his career, he was riding high on a series of well-received films and/or performances, with True Romance, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and JFK in the immediate past, and with Immortal Beloved and Murder in the First soon to come.
Whomever coined the term “femme fatale” never in his or her wildest dreams could have ever predicted that it would lead to Lena Olin’s Mona Demarkov. The closest thing on-screen to a female Hannibal Lecter, Olin is madly seductive to watch, her willingness to display brazen sexuality equally matched by the level of insanity she’s obviously delighted in achieving. Watching her squirm across car hoods or snap on rather revealing leather harnesses leaves you with the sense that very few of her female colleagues would have ever been brave or daring enough to dedicate themselves entirely to such a role. Olin, who has played similar (though very watered down) versions of this character in The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Ninth Gate oozes sensuality as well as danger, presenting the two as if to suggest one cannot exist without the other. Being that Romeo is Bleeding goes out of its way several times to explore themes of duality and the natural balance of the universe, this is entirely appropriate.
More typical femme fatales of the past preyed on the loneliness and isolation usually exhibited by our flawed but well-meaning heroes. This time, however, Olin senses that Oldman’s Grimaldi isn’t lonely or isolated so much as he possesses a appetite for sex and self-destruction which leads him into the beds of many other women. Olin’s Mona is the femme fatale of the ’90s, fully exploiting her own sexual nature to lure Grimaldi into the type of danger that usually befalls the many men who should know better in the noir universe.
One might accuse Romeo is Bleeding of being overstuffed to the point of powder-keg status, and of offering the false indication that the conflict has resolved itself before introducing the next unseen development, but that doesn’t dare come close to ruling out Romeo is Bleeding for unworthy proper examination and respect. As modern noir goes, it hits the tropes beat for beat, right down to the horn-driven musical score by Mark Isham, but along the way it adds a gonzo amount of sexual aberration and violence that students of more classic noir might not fully stomach.
THE PICTURE 4/5
Twilight Time, courtesy of MGM, presents a mostly solid high-definition picture for Romeo is Bleeding‘s blu-ray debut. Once the opening titles come and go, so do the instances of wobbling and telecine tremor that plague on-screen text. Grain is prevalent during scenes of high light (of which there aren’t many), but is reigned in once we’re in New York City beneath gray and muted skies. Flesh tones are realistic, though a touch muted, and textures are mostly defined. Close-ups on Oldman’s young face reveal a study amount of definition, though in some scenes appears just a hair too smooth.
THE SOUND 4/5
The 2.0 stereo track does a fine job of conveying dialogue (especially the on-screen narration as provided by Oldman’s “two” characters). Dialogue marries well into the noirish musical score by Mark Isham. Medak, who had also directed the classic horror film The Changeling at this point, utilizes sound extremely well when he wants to jar or unsettle his audience, and the audio presentation on hand preserves that quite well.
THE SUPPLEMENTS 1.5/5
The complete list of special features is as follows:
— Isolated Score Track by Composer Mark Isham (with some effects)
— Original Theatrical Trailer
STUDIO: United Artists / Polygram Filmed Entertainment / MGM
DISTRIBUTOR: Twilight Time (limited to 3,000 units)
THEATRICAL DATE: February 4, 1994
VIDEO STREET DATE: June 14, 2016
VIDEO: MPEG-4 AVC; 1080p; 1.85:1
AUDIO: English 2.0 Stereo
SUBTITLES: English SDH
RUN TIME: 109 mins
DVD COPY: N/A
DIGITAL DOWNLOAD: N/A
Film noir newbs should stick Romeo is Bleeding at the bottom of the pile until their feet are a bit wetter. Celebrated tropes of the noir movement are certainly on hand, but have been transformed under the somewhat eccentric tutelage of director Peter Medak, who gleefully embraces the crazier aspects of Hilary Henkin’s screenplay to present a take on noir that hasn’t been topped since. Romeo is Bleeding might be a bit too stuffed for its own good, but when the events that come out of this excess are this insane, and when they enable one of Gary Oldman’s best and most reckless performances, well, it’s easy to forgive. The lack of special features for this release is disappointing, but the excellent PQ and AQ, as well as all the before-mentioned insanity, make it an easy recommendation.
(Thanks to Rock! Shock! Pop! for the screen grabs.)
Twilight Time are a boutique distributor who specialize in limited editions of culturally significant films from the world’s finest filmmakers. Founded by and comprised of “collectors and lifelong movie buffs,” Twilight Time’s catalogue of releases are specifically chosen to represent the films that, though beloved, would likely not be released by their own studios: “If we didn’t put them out, it is likely that they wouldn’t come out. And we are going to try to put them out … [with] the best picture and sound that we can.”