The late ’80s and early ’90s marked an enormous revival of noir, thanks primarily to Quentin Tarantino’s meteoric rise to fame with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, although it was brewing already in the work of David Lynch and John Dahl, amongst others. Romeo is Bleeding was the third in a row of crime films from director Peter Medak, made after the British movies The Krays and Let Him Have It. Medak is one of those directors who has had a different amount of critical acclaim depending on what he has worked on: his “auteur status” is mainly down to The Ruling Class and the vastly overrated The Changeling. He dabbles in genre film and TV a lot, and you always get the sense that he is so arrogant as to think these works are really below him. Romeo is Bleeding is no exception.
Gary Oldman, at the start of his career high coming off of State of Grace (a much superior neo-noir), JFK, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, gives a rare misfire of a performance as the lead character, corrupt cop Jack Grimaldi. As a thespian Oldman is never afraid to go big, and in Dracula and the films that followed Romeo Is Bleeding, True Romance and Léon: The Professional he pitched it just right for the worlds Coppola, Scott and Besson crafted. He isn’t the only who grates here, however. Lena Olin plays Mona Demarkov, Oldman’s main antagonist: the whole cusp of the story is this psychosexual cat-and-mouse game between Oldman’s cop and her femme fatale mob assassin. She never comfortably portrays the kind of raw sexuality that would make a guy like Oldman’s character losing his better judgment to make smart decisions about his subsequent actions, Ellen Barkin bowed out due to a pregnancy, and even Madonna was on the list of possible candidates. They both could’ve brought a certain sleaziness to the role, which it demands but never delivers.
It’s a film that thinks it’s above its sleazy genre conventions, but still sexualises all the female characters to a ridiculous degree—of course, it’s done with an air of arthouse respectability that Medak brings to the project. Juliette Lewis is utterly wasted as Grimaldi’s teen lover. If the film had just run with its sleaziness, it would’ve worked much better. For example, a director like John Dahl, who was a master of the neo-noir during this time, perfectly melded both the lurid and artistic elements of noir.
Medak’s career would take a quick downturn a few year later when he made Species 2; his most prominent work since has been a documentary on a Peter Sellers film that he made and prestige TV like Hannibal, Breaking Bad, The Wire etc.
The film has one of worst narrations in cinematic history: for example, “God sends meat and the devil sends cooks,” which feels like it belongs in the theatrical cut of Blade Runner. The dialogue in general is bad hard-boiled jargon, which feels very forced. Screenwriter Hilary Henkin is probably best-known for her first draft of Wag the Dog, which David Mamet heavily rewrote; Road House; and the original script for V For Vendetta back in the ’90s (tonally, that one would make Daniel Waters blush, which is saying something.)
Romeo is Bleeding is one of those films that has so much going for it, including a potentiallyexcellent cast—besides everybody already mentioned, it has Roy Scheider, Dennis Farina, James Cromwell and Ron Perlman! But it’s a really a dud that needed a serious rewrite, including removing the contrived wrap-around flashback structure that gives Oldman’s character no real sense of danger. It feels like a carry-over from the awful 80s The Twilight Zone episodes that Medak helmed. There is a reason this film hasn’t gained the cult following of other films of its ilk from around the same time.
The release from BFI includes a commentary from critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, a new retrospective interview with Medak about his career recorded over Zoom or Skype, an image gallery, theatrical trailer and a booklet with new writing on the film.