06 July 2013

TONY SCOTT: REVENGE (1990)

The reason that there are two wildly different versions of the 1990 film Revenge is a great deal more interesting than the movie itself, for from the title on down it is but a meanly typical and pedestrian early-'90s erotic thriller whose chief point of significance is that, 14 years before Man on Fire, director Tony Scott was already dabbling in the "Mexico as a fantasyland of third world horrors" genre, assuming you read MoF that way (one of the things I'm most excited about in this retrospective is finding out whether I still feel the way I did about that movie years ago when I saw it first and last, but that will keep till we get there). It is one of the earliest, perhaps the first, movie in the phase of his career where Kevin Costner stopped making relatively intriguing choices as an actor, and began to coast on his fuck-me smirk, and was to be his directorial debut until the film's producer suggested otherwise; as it was, Costner's first film as director, Dances with Wolves, came out later that same year.

That producer, Ray Stark (who isn't credited as such, but he was the head honcho of Rastar Films, the production company), is part of the backstage story that ends up being the best part of Revenge. He and Scott had very different plans for the movie, which Scott ended up caving on, being essentially a hired gun (though he put a great deal more of his personal touch into Revenge than his previous hack job, Beverly Hills Cop II). The film's plot, you see, is basically thus: a young man, Cochran (Costner) visits his old friend, an elderly Mexican ganglord, Tiburon "Tibby" Mendez (Anthony Quinn), with a gorgeous trophy wife, Miryea (Madeleine Stowe). Cochran and Miryea have an affair, and Tibby loses his fucking mind, severely punishing both of the adulterers for Revenge, and Cochran, after getting back on his feet, goes back to save his lover and get his Revenge on the gangster.

Scott wanted a film about the sins of the impetuous adulterers coming home to roost; Stark (and Costner) wanted a more conventional erotic crime thriller in which the lovers were more sympathetic and the gangster seen as a deranged villain. The version released to theaters, at 124 minutes, was essentially that. But Scott never liked the results, and very soon after Stark died in 2004, he put into motion plans to release a director's cut of Revenge; but a very unique and special kind of director's cut. The 2007 release of the film, Scott-approved, is a full 20 minutes shorter than the theatrical cut, one of the immensely few times that such a revision has, for the most part, removed material (offhand, the only other example I can name is the Coen brothers' three-minutes shorter Blood Simple redo), and it's quite obvious why he did it: it makes the film a lot punchier and less contemplative, removes vast swaths of details to shore up the characters (mostly Cochran, but Tibby is made to seem much darker and more deranged), and emphasises the flash-and-bang elements of the plot, emphasis on "bang". For what Scott did add back, while he was busy cutting the psychology out of the movie, was sex scenes of a kind that you absolutely did not get to put into American movie theaters in 1990.

The result of all of this is hard to say, really: by all means, the theatrical cut of Revenge is smarter and coherent, but the whole thing is trashy in either cut, and at least Scott's version does a better job of celebrating and valorising the trash without bogging down in character detail that's already not terribly original or insightful in the script by Jim Harrison and Jeff Fiskin (adapted from Harrison's 1979 novella), and not helped out by Costner's smugly banal performance, or Stowe's blank depiction of a female who simply cannot compete with the film's insistence, in any cut, on taking a compulsively boyish perspective on everything.

And that's the thing, really: the two Revenges are different enough to be entirely distinct movies, but they share the same flaws, and those outweigh whatever felicities are found in one or the other cut. The biggest flaw is certainly Costner himself, both because he's not acting at all well, and because in both films (but moreso the director's cut) he's such a constant, important presence. The second biggest flaw is that the story is not nearly as compelling as it thinks it is: emphatically not in the theatrical cut, with its hoary "evil husband is insanely jealous" angle, and not really in the skimpy, arguably sex-phobic director's cut, which for all its enthusiasm about watching Costner and Stowe make out from every possible angle, still boils down to "adultery makes you a terrible person, and you'll suffer for it. Probably get AIDS from a Mexican transvestite, too".

There's a level to which the filmmaking almost saves this clumsily-expressed, shallow script from itself: Scott and DP Jeffrey Kimball suffuse everything with a smokey, hazy diffusion that heavily romanticises everything that's going on and gives it a sense of raw humanity that the actors (outside of, maybe, Quinn) don't bring to the thready characters. For all that the sex scenes are prurient and nothing but, they are gorgeously well-done sex scenes, sensory and experiential in a way that the tawdry but lazy sex in other erotic thrillers of the period can't match - whatever his preferred story might say about the wages of sex, it's obvious that Scott adores sex, and wants to make it look as desirable as possible. Same thing, really, for his loving foregrounding of the violent action, which remains considerably more restrained than his sex scenes, but still seems to gather much more attention than dialogue or characters, things that are shot in largely flat stagings. I've got to say this: Revenge, more than any other Scott film I've seen, feels like it was made by a commercial director: the most memorable images are all very much product shots, with the product in this case being human behavior at its most animalistic (sex, murder). A more self-aware film might have done something interesting with that; I certainly wouldn't put it past Scott to be intentionally ratcheting up that element of the film to deliberately poke fun at the generic qualities of the scenario, though there's nothing in his career - definitely not in the strait-laced ad for U.S. militarism called Top Gun - that kind of ambivalence about selling cinema audiences base impulses as glamorous lifestyle accessories.

Anyway, whether this is deliberate or not, Revenge wastes it; the film looks nice but has absolutely no soul, and in the Scott edit doesn't even pretend that it wants one. The erotic thriller of that generation had a very definite and reasonably low ceiling, make no mistake; but Revenge isn't seriously trying to raise that bar, regardless.

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