Sunday, January 19, 2014

HIT ME (1996) - Steven Shainberg


You know you're miles outside of Thompson Land when a movie based on one of his books (A Swell Looking Babe) opens with a hackneyed Henry David Thoreau quote (the "lives of quiet desperation" thing), takes place in a Tacoma, Washington hotel instead of one in Texas and runs for more than two hours. If there's one thing you can say for Jim Thompson, the man was never pretentious and knew how to get in and out of a pulpy potboiler plotline fast, usually in under 200 pages. I think the guy who directed Secretary (Shainberg) got a little high falutin' as they say. Or maybe novelist-moonlighting-as-screenwriter Denis Johnson (Jesus' Son) can shoulder some of that bloated blame.

Not that Hit Me is all bad. There are some interesting choices with the occasional misfires. The basic set-up from the book is the same: Bellhop in a failing hotel gets involved with a beautiful and conniving female guest and a heist of a huge poker game with the buy-in money kept in lobby safe deposit boxes. The casting is commendable: Always reliable Elias Koteas in the lead role, here doing a sort of unhinged Nic Cage riff that more or less works. Also, half of P.T. Anderson's '90s stock company (William H. Macy, Phillip Baker Hall, and Kevin O'Connor  here playing a badass for a change!).

Then come the directorial "inspirations" (read: adulterations). The sick father the bellhop cares for in the novel is replaced with an overweight, mildly retarded brother who watches lots of cartoons. The femme fatale of the book is changed from an older, predatory mother figure (a recurring Thompson Oedipal theme) to a young French waif prone to slashing her wrists. There's also a gross overuse of wide angle lenses and a semi-comic score in a movie that's supposed to be, more or less, a noir thriller. It feels like director Shainberg had been rewatching Raising Arizona too much when he should have been revisiting Blood Simple. All in all, it makes for an interesting though flawed Thompson adaptation. Hell, I'm just glad to see Koteas nab the lead role in anything.

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