Cartoonist C.C. Drood (Tom Hulce) has a successful career, a cute little daughter (the tragically short-lived Judith Barsi) and is on good terms with his ex-wife (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). But his life turns upside down one night when he returns home to find his apartment ransacked by a sinister man (Don Keith Opper), who promptly knocks him unconscious. Awakening in the back of a car, Drood is quizzed by the gun-toting stranger and his equally menacing accomplice (John Doe) as to whether a mysterious woman left him any kind of package. With no idea what they are talking about, Drood makes his escape only to learn that the woman in question is Yolanda Caldwell (Virginia Madsen), with whom he once had a torrid affair. It turns out Yolanda is dead, presumed murdered and the police want to ask him some questions. Drood sets out to solve the murder himself, but in uncovering a complex conspiracy ends up on the run from the cops after another woman is found dead at his apartment.
There seems to be a film noir revival every ten years or so, what with John Dahl almost single-handedly keeping the flag flying throughout the Nineties or such recent examples of neo-noir as The Square (2008) or Drive (2011). In the 1980s there seemed to be a concerted effort among filmmakers to fuse neo-noir with stylistic elements from the post-punk new wave. Witness the French “cinema du look” classic Diva (1981), William Friedkin’s MTV infected To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), Alan Parker’s moody though overrated Angel Heart (1987) and certainly Slam Dance, director Wayne Wang’s first genre outing after his early run of quirky comedy-dramas.
The whole oh-so-Eighties new wave vibe is evident right from the zany font featured in the opening credits, the alternately grating and evocative soundtrack by pop producer Mitchell Froom and the fact not only does punk rocker John Doe essay one of the main antagonists but Drood’s best friend is played by Adam Ant, for crying out loud. The erstwhile Prince Charming gives a pretty decent performance despite telling a whole host of terrible jokes, like “How many surrealists does it take to screw in a light bulb?” The answer is: “Fish.” Get it? And there is the title which comes into play in a cathartic sequence where a downtrodden Drood joins a host of punks pogo-dancing at a nightclub, leaping and laughing his troubles away like a loon. It is oddly affecting.
Following an outstanding, Oscar-nominated turn in the awesome Amadeus (1984), Tom Hulce plays C.C. Drood in slightly irksome fashion as a zany man-child. He is an unusual protagonist for this sort of thriller but his performance matches the film’s off-kilter tone that switches from broad comedy to sincere, surprisingly sensitive drama. Drood’s alternately cordial and strained relationship with his ex-wife is nicely drawn and well played by Hulce and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. Wang’s leisurely, observational direction teases out quirky peripheral details and offbeat incidents. One suspenseful, well handled scene sees Drood attempt to sneak into a high society bash only to discover the host (Millie Perkins, of The Diary of Anne Frank (1959)) knows who he is. However, the oppressive noir tone does not always gel comfortably with scenes of cracked comedy detailing Drood’s struggles with his deaf landlady or when a small child whacks him in the nuts with a rubber chicken (!)
Actor Don Keith Opper, who plays Drood’s enigmatic nemesis, also wrote the screenplay. His previous work as both writer and actor included offbeat science fiction films Android (1981) and City Limits (1984) and he went on to further cult fame as Charlie McFadden, goofy hero of Critters (1986) and its three sequels. Opper’s script is deliberately vague about story details and invites the viewer to piece together the fragmented narrative, but the continuing confrontations between his character and Drood grow tiresomely repetitive. Wang’s flashy mise-en-scene fails to advance the story but the resolution is unexpected and interesting.