City Paper is not for tourists
amily and reason got nothing to do with each other,” snaps elderly patriarch Rocky at the beginning of Roommates, when he decrees that he will look after Michael, his newly orphaned 6-year-old grandson—and viewers can be sure that both the film and the grown-up Michael will eventually return to this wisdom. Since Rocky is blunt and ornery and Michael later proves to be dithering and often drunk, the film suggests that men aren’t very good at caring for children. Moms die young in the Holachek clan, though, so the guys must do what they can.
Adapted by Stephen Metcalfe and Max Apple from the latter’s memoir, Roommates follows Rocky (Peter Falk) and Michael (played after the early scenes by D.B. Sweeney) for about 30 years and from Pittsburgh, Pa., to Columbus, Ohio, and back again. Together, the odd couple encounter (and generally best) the problems of parenting, true love, early death, and a meddling mother-in-law. Replete with funerals, deathbed farewells, and bad-news-in-the-hospital-corridor scenes, the film delivers its life- goes-on message with a gravedigger’s shovel.
Director Peter Yates could perhaps have made this a little more treacly, but the proceedings are nonetheless about as slick as the latex that adds 20 to 30 years to Falk’s own 67; it’s the sort of film where Elmer Bernstein’s hopelessly jaunty score swells when one of the principals wins a game of gin and where, when a nun from Michael’s school reports that the 15-year-old has become a bookie, you know it’s just so he could buy his grandpa a nice birthday present. Rocky and Michael bicker, but in their coexistence annoyance and contentment are inseparable, as the latter discovers when he goes off to medical school and finds he can’t sleep without the reassurance of his grandfather’s rafter-rattling snoring.
After Rocky is evicted from his condemned dwelling, he reluctantly moves into the Columbus group house shared by Michael and a group of Chinese students. When Michael meets and—at Rocky’s insistence—marries the utterly wonderful Beth (the suitably radiant Julianne Moore) and moves back to Pittsburgh, his grandfather declines to follow. He’s there soon enough, though: Rocky and Michael can’t be divided for long, and when circumstances threaten to sunder Michael from his two young children, it’s Rocky who makes sure that doesn’t come to pass.
“Bad things don’t happen because you care; they happen because you don’t,” Beth tells Michael, but figuring out who Rocky cares about is a bit tricky. He’s always kind to children, but quarrels with his grown-up grandson, denounces the Chinese as communists, essentially calls Beth a slut, and seldom stops tormenting Beth’s mother (Ellen Burstyn). He’s only irreconcilable, however, with the one of those persons who threatens his surrogate fatherhood of his grandson, great-grandson, and great-granddaughter.
In some ways, Rocky is a hero for our (that is, Newt’s) time: He insists on working (as a baker) well into his Social Security years. I suspect, however, that his sentimentality and irascibility blended more convincingly on the printed page than they do here. On film, the recipe is too sweet, andRocky’s occasional bursts of meanness are less piquant than simply inexplicable.
Ninjas, bullet trains, neon-lit streets, ritual drumming, goofy TV shows—if The Hunted had showed us these things 25 years ago, its mise en scène would have been so captivating that the tepid plot wouldn’t have much mattered. Japan is not quite so beguilingly odd as it once was, though, so The Hunted really needs to provide more than a vivid, exotic backdrop. It doesn’t.
The film, the directorial debut of Pretty Woman and Under Siege scripter J.F. Lawton, starts off tantalizingly enough—if you can buy the notions that Gallic mushmouth Christopher Lambert is a New York computer-chip salesman, and that graceful Hikone Castle has somehow been transported to Nagoya, the Akron of Japan. At a hotel bar where country music plays, Paul Racine (Lambert) strikes up a conversation with Kirina (Joan Chen), a mystery woman in an attention-getting red dress. They stroll through a nearby park where they catch a performance by Kodo, the neotraditional percussion ensemble whose thumping drives the movie’s most kinetic scenes, then adjourn to her chamber, perhaps the biggest hotel room in all Japan, for some (literally) steamy sex in a hot tub.
Kirina ends the evening with the enigmatic news that she can never see Racine again, and settles in to wait for something. That turns out to be three ninjas who have come, as she expected, to kill her. Discovering that he has her room key, Racine returns just in time to see Kirina’s decapitation—and the face of master assassin Kinjo (John Lone, who like Chen is not Japanese). Racine’s not trained to tangle with ninjas, but he somehow survives; having glimpsed Kinjo’s visage, though, he’s a marked man.
This section of the film is fast-paced and visually striking. Lawton employs color-negative footage, inserts a full-color Kirina into a black-and-white scene, and elegantly (if rather too blithely) aestheticizes ninja carnage with an arty shot of blood billowing in water. A nonfatal dose of the poison on the ninja star that wounded Racine, it’s explained, grants the victim visions, and these sequences are reasonably visionary.
There are a few more hallucinations to follow, but the remainder of The Hunted is mostly pedestrian. Aside from body counts worthy of a Hong Kong action flick, there’s little to distinguish the subsequent set pieces, which include a massacre on a hurtling shinkansen train (actually the world’s safest form of transportation) and the final dark-and-stormy-night showdown when Kinjo and his henchmen face Racine and Takeda (Yoshio Harada), the coldblooded martial-arts master who has agreed to help protect the computer-chip salesman because of a centuries-old family feud with Kinjo’s kin.
Lawton’s knowledge of Japanese culture doesn’t seem profound, but he clearly has an enthusiasm for the country’s pop culture. He attempts to mingle stylized action and simple humor in the manner of both vintage Kurosawa and current Japanimation, introducing a drunken sword-maker as comic relief and having a cop recant his denial of the existence of modern-day ninjas just after one of the killers shreds him. The script also has some fun at the expense of his hero: Racine says “teeko” for taiko (Japanese for “drum”), and when Kirina undresses the businessman his pig-festooned boxer shorts are clearly not the garb of a warrior. Unfortunately, Lambert’s aptitude for such gags is even less developed than is the director’s.
Perhaps the oddest aspect of Japanese pop culture that Lawton has absorbed is its view of women. Though The Hunted does feature one icily murderous ninjette, most of its female characters are subservient helpmates—in the case of Kirina, so perversely submissive as to ask her killer for a samurai-style evisceration. Near the film’s end, Takeda’s wife Mieko briefly turns into Kirina, which just emphasizes the interchangeability of all these women, from Kirina to Meiko to the naked maid who bathes Kinjo to the barely adolescent girl who rescues Racine from his attackers in a pachinko parlor. At the moment when Racine bids “bye, angel” to this chaste vision, Lawton really seems to have internalized the Japanese schoolgirl/whore fixation. A few more feats of cultural assimilation that weird and The Hunted would have been compelling despite itself.