Like Ficarra and Requa’s 2011 comedy Crazy Stupid Love, Focus begins promisingly and bops along enjoyably for a while, only to run out of steam…
Is it love at first sight? It's certainly lust at first sight between them in the beginning. Something clicks inside. They soon begin their secret affair, and then, motivated by their common desire to escape from the world they're stuck in, they hatch a scheme to solve their problems once for all. They have a good plan. They can succeed if they carefully tiptoe along the thin line they draw. However, in the world of film noir, it is usually easier said than done.
While looking back at how its story work flawlessly in the Wachowski brothers' terrific crime thriller "Bound" (1996), I recall what the arsonist played by Mickey Rourke said to William Hurt's character in "Body Heat" (1981): "Any time you try a decent crime, you got fifty ways you're gonna fuck up. If you think of twenty-five of them, then you're a genius." Indeed, there are many possible ways for how the things can go wrong for the characters in the movie, and it binds us tightly to its elaborate plot along with the characters, while cunningly toying with these fatal possibilities till its finale. The result is one of the most enjoyable neo-noir movies made during the 1990s.
Before capturing our attention in its grip completely, it lures us first with the relatively unorthodox relationship compared to other criminally dangerous liaisons we have encountered. While its two characters are as passionate as other memorable couples in film noir movies, there is an obvious difference that gives the film a unique quality. This time, they are lesbians, and both are well-qualified as femme fatales.
Some of our amusement with the movie comes from how it playfully utilizes the typical build-up process which has been mainly reserved for heterosexual affairs. When they happen to be together in the elevator of the apartment building, Violet (Jennifer Tilly), taking off her sunglasses, sets her eyes on Corky (Gina Gershon), who recognizes her attention. Corky is an ex-con who has recently been released from the prison. She tries to adjust to a new way of life while doing the repair jobs including plumbing and painting at the apartment next to the one where Violet and her boyfriend Caeser (Joe Pantoliano) live. The wall between apartments is thin, and Corky sometime hears the sounds from the other side.
Following the footsteps of senior femme fatales in film noir history, Violet makes her opening move. Their first encounter is accompanied by two cups of coffee from her ("I guessed you were straight black."). The second encounter is due to a small plumbing problem with her earring "accidentally" falling into the sinkhole. Corky comes to Violet's apartment and fixes the problem in a short time. Violet offers a bottle of beer to her; she says she likes one of Corky's tattoos. She asks Corky whether she wants to see her tattoos. You can guess what happens next.
The movie delivers what it promises while handling its sensational subject with taste. For a realistic depiction of the lesbian relationship in their movie, the Wachowski brothers recruited a writer of eroticism, Susie Bright, as their consultant; she briefly appears in the lesbian bar scene. With a shady atmosphere provided by cinematographer Bill Pope, the sex scene are presented as something hot, wet, steamy and naked - and, above all, with a bit of mystery to tantalize us. Love scenes in movies are usually more interesting they are not naked, but this case is an exception in which the main play can be as interesting as the foreplay.
But sex is actually the movie's foreplay. Another thing spice up their relationship: crime. While watching Violet and Corky beginning to devise a plot together, I remember how compelling it was to observe the couple in Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity" (1944) plot and prepare their crime during their secret meetings in open spaces while not noticed by others. Like "Brokeback Mountain" works as an universal love story approachable to us, "Bound" works as an universal crime story absorbing to us. As a flexible style still in evolution, film noir knows no boundary, and embraces all sorts of dangerous couples.
Neither of them is a fool, so Violet and Corky are well aware of one crucial logical question which comes naturally with their plot: can they trust each other? Corky points that out succinctly. "For me, stealing's always been a lot like sex. Two people who want the same thing: they get in a room, they talk about it. They start to plan. It's kind of like flirting. It's kind of like... foreplay, 'cause the more they talk about it, the wetter they get. The only difference is, I can fuck someone I've just met. But to steal? I need to know someone like I know myself."
Do they know each other as much as they know themselves? Even if they put that question aside, they will have to take lots of risks in their plan; they're going to steal the money from the Mafia family Caeser works for as a money launderer. Caeser has happened to keep money retrieved from the guy who dares to skim about $2 million from their business. Corky and Violet will snatch the money in Caeser's custody before it is handed to his associates, and Caeser will be their patsy to be framed; once he finds the money is gone, he will flee in fear of his life, and his associates will think he ran away with the money.
His people are definitely not guys you can mess with. In one cringe-inducing scene in the bathroom of Caeser's apartment, they ruthlessly beat the guy who stole the money from them and threaten to sever his fingers one by one if he doesn't tell them where he stashed the money. Though the movie tactfully saves us from the gruesome details, the blood dripping into the toilet water makes this one of the most strikingly violent scenes in the film.
This is a movie which can you make wince, but it is also amusing to see how this "chamber crime drama" functions like a clever comedy. Once there is no turning back for the characters, the movie becomes more devious as its plot continuously twists in limited space and time. Most of the main incidents revolve around two neighboring apartments in a short span of time, except for one brief scene where the characters go to a certain place. The more desperate they are, the more claustrophobic the mood becomes, and the more limited their options are. Lots of things keep happening to them, so they have to do lots of things, including, for example, hiding the incriminating traces from the visiting policemen, who may find something fishy inside the apartment.
They become quite busy as the clockwork plot gets thickened and twisted with precise timing worthy of a classic screwball comedy, and, as a result, the film looks like a kinky hybrid between the Marx Brothers and the Coen brothers. For every move, there is a consequence that complicates the characters' situation, and they have to deal with it along with previous ones. Amid the series of improvisations concocted by them, the plot seems like unpredictable at first, but we realize later everything that happens on the screen is inevitably directed toward the brief scene shown at the start, which is also logically echoed in the finale. The Wachowski brothers' screenplay deserves to be cited in screenplay writing lectures as an excellent cases of making the inevitable unpredictable.
They learned how to play notes efficiently from others including the Coen brothers, and they knew the music, and their homework deserves A+.Along with slick hard-boiled lines ("I'm not apologizing for what I did. I'm apologizing for what I didn't do."), their screenplay has sly tongue-in-cheek humor to tickle us. While emphasizing the grave danger Corky and Violet face, the Wachowski brothers don't miss chances to draw black humor from the violent situations ("Caesar, I'm leaving." - "What? Oh, come on, I didn't use one of the good towels.").
In one of the funniest scenes in the movie, Caeser is so serious about his work to do that we cannot help but amused by a surreal sight of hundred-dollar bills handled in a way that will remind you the inherent meaning of money laundering. You can probably guess what I mean, but Caeser is far more serious in his work than what you imagine - that is why it is so hilarious to watch.
Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon are simply fabulous as the unconventional partners in crime. They are seductive as required, they are strong as demanded, and their chemistry sparks the movie every minute. Jennifer Tilly had already played a gun moll in Woody Allen's "Bullets Over Broadway" (1994), but she is far different from the spectacularly empty-headed character in Allen's movie. Violet is a manipulative woman with a brain, and she knows how to handle women as well as men (Tilly subtly reveals her different strategies for them with her breathy voice). There is her strong will, and there is always her way she is looking for even during her most desperate minutes.
Recently, I finally watched Paul Verhoeven's infamous film "Showgirls" (1995), one of the most enjoyable bad movies in the 1990s, for the first time, and I was entertained by how Gina Gershon, as one of few good things in the movie, had campy fun among all those non-CGI body parts. In the case of "Bound", Gershon got the right story for her talent. Basically, her character can be substituted with a male character, but Gershon's solid performance makes her character distinct with sexy toughness equal to Tilly's wily seductiveness.
As the Wachowski brothers' ace in the hole, Joe Pantoliano is the combustible fuel to the spark generated by Tilly and Gershon. Caeser is not bright enough to see what's going on between his girl and the plumber on the next door, but, in a misguided direction, he's smart enough to try to find a way out of his impending doom. The more cornered he is, the more dangerous he is, and the more unpredictable the situation is. Nonetheless, even when he is near mental breakdown, his brain knows one plus one equals two, and, in one heart-stopping moment, our attention is fixed on what he can infer from one small miscalculation; it only requires the redial button on the telephone.
"Bound" was the Wachowski brothers' first movie. They wrote their first screenplay for Richard Donner's "Assassins"(1995), and they were not happy about the end product (and neither were we), so they decided to direct the second screenplay themselves. That turned out far better. Within the tight budget provided by the late Dino De Laurentiis, they succeeded in making a skillful noir thriller to be remembered; it was good enough to be not only a breakthrough but also the stepping stone for the next big step in their career - the huge financial success with "The Matrix" (1999) and its two sequels.
While working mainly as the producers/writers after that success, the Wachowski brothers' directing career has been relatively quiet except that disastrous flop "Speed Racer" (2008), and many people will probably remember them as the directors of "Matrix." This small dark film remains as their best work to date. It's a good crime story, and we have a fun and thrill with its compelling criminal heroines. They are clever girls. Who says they can't get away with their crime?
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