|If you thought film noir had made a comeback in the nineteen-eighties, then it had nothing on the nineteen-nineties, except quite a bit of what was termed neo-noir was additionally termed the erotic thriller, since they both relied on a femme fatale figure to set the plot rolling and dole out the punishment to the willing schmuck of a hero. Updates of Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity or Edward G. Robinson in The Woman in the Window abounded in anything from Basic Instinct to The Last Seduction and a thousand direct to video efforts, but it was the ladies these were sold on, be they Sharon Stone or Linda Fiorentino.
One underrated femme fatale from this era was Lena Olin in Romeo is Bleeding, a 1993 film that did not gain much traction at the time, but went on to build a cult following among those who happened to catch it on late night television or took a chance on a disc, attracted by the starry cast (seriously, there's practically a recognisable face in just about every role). It was scripted by Hilary Henkin, who also penned the likes of Road House and Wag the Dog (though she had to fight for her Oscar-winning credit on the latter), and looked to be one of the most promising screenwriters of the late eighties and early nineties until the credits dried up (though she did work behind the scenes).
Henkin acknowledged that the male protagonists in noir were, by and large, idiots, and if they were not idiots they would have some fatal flaw that made them susceptible to a Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Bennett or Jane Greer, among so many other women out to get even with men and enjoy a measure of success on their own terms, often by using their sex appeal. Olin was not an obvious villain in previous roles, not on this borderline insane scale at any rate, yet took to her Mona Demarkov role as a New York Russian mafia crime boss like a duck to water - for a start, she was the only character in the whole story who appeared to be having fun, this despite some major mishaps otherwise.
Everyone else were blokes consumed by the daily grind, on either side of the law, or women who were their victims, whether deliberately or accidentally. The fall guy here was Gary Oldman as cop Jack Grimaldi (and if you forget his first name the others in the movie helpfully repeat it about a million times), who began this giving us his best Robert De Niro then, as if admitting he could not keep that up, wound up as his best Elisha Cook Jr. The amount of abuse Jack suffers was only comparable to that of his wife (Annabella Sciorra) and his mistress (Juliette Lewis), and even then their misfortune was brought down on their heads by Jack's poor management of his life skills.
He's a cop on the make, playing both sides against the other, and feeding the spoils (wads of cash) to the hole in his back garden, a nest egg he plans to use to engineer his getaway with, though he gets greedy and there never seems to be enough in there for him. Then he meets Mona, who he is supposed to guard in a hotel room so naturally ends up lying underneath her as she tries to get his gun off him without him noticing, and laughs her head off when they are discovered in flagrante delicto on the floor, half-dressed. Get used to hearing Olin's laughter, she roars with mirth every time Jack is stupid enough to trust her, so well aware that he is thinking with his trouser area.
Mona is the nightmare for any man who thinks he can get away with trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the ladies in his life, a harpy who happens to be irresistibly seductive and will prove the undoing of anyone who gets in her way. But the thing was, the men invite her into their lives, like a vampire, so they really only have themselves to blame, almost as if they are deliberately courting their own destruction to punish their perceived guilt, guilt they merely add to by getting mixed up with Mona. Indeed, there was plenty masochistic about Jack's relationship with her, he simply could not turn her down even as the voice in his head (a literal voice, in voiceover) tells him to avoid her like the plague.
Romeo is Bleeding was directed by Peter Medak, a Hungarian who made his home in Britain and made a reputation early for offbeat projects like The Ruling Class and A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, before moving between television and film for the rest of his career. Though Henkin, you sense, was the author here, his characteristic interest in the off-kilter was much in evidence, and while the cast were essentially a bunch of gangster and cop flick stereotypes, something had drawn these fairly big names to the project. Had it been a hit, it would likely have set many of them off onto starring roles elsewhere - Sciorra worked wonders with a hackneyed, wronged woman part, but now we know thanks to Harvey Weinstein her promise was sabotaged by forces beyond her control. It was really Olin's show, however, as while Oldman whined, gurned and wept, Mona was the picture of confidence and you fully believe her claim that she was purely using Jack to get her way. It genuinely felt like vengeance.
[Romeo is Bleeding is released on Blu-ray by the BFI with the following special features:
Newly recorded audio commentary by author and film critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas
Medak on Medak: An Interview with Peter Medak (2021, 43 mins): a newly filmed interview with director Peter Medak on his career and his work on Romeo is Bleeding
Original theatrical trailer
Isolated score (featuring some effects)
**FIRST PRESSING ONLY** Fully illustrated booklet with new essays by Rebecca Feasey, Lou Thomas and Dr Josephine Botting and full film credits]