D: Donna Deitch; with Joan Severance, Anthony John Denison, John Allen Nelson, David Labiosa, Wolfgang Bodison, Shannon Wilcox, Henry Darrow.
Criminal Passion? Never heard of it. Initially, that was enough to get me to pull the box off the video store shelf. The visible information rang no immediate bells, at least not until I reached the director's credit. Listed as director is Donna Deitch, the filmmaker who, in 1985, broke into feature filmmaking with the beloved lesbian love story Desert Hearts, a project which she wrote, produced, and directed. Since then, not much has been seen of Deitch. I know she directed the Oprah Winfrey-produced TV movie The Women of Brewster Place in 1989 and one segment of the all women-directed, made-for-cable, compilation movie Prison Stories: Women on the Inside in 1991. But, beyond that, who knows? So, immediately I'm interested. From its box, Criminal Passion looked like one of those "sexy crime thrillers" featuring a woman detective in an otherwise all-male world, the kind of drama we've seen done badly too frequently, and done well hardly ever. Criminal Passion lands in the much-better-than-average category, though it often falls victim to some stunted plotting and acting, as well as other low-budget lapses. Still, the movie has lots going for it and I'm always a sucker for stories about women sleuths whose taste for danger and control leads them to identify with their lawbreaking prey. This quality is part of what makes them successful at their jobs, but it's also something that makes them emotionally vulnerable. In this sense, Criminal Passion belongs to a category of films that is best exemplified by Lizzie Borden's spectacularly messy Love Crimes (even beyond the similar titles), which stars Sean Young, and the Sondra Locke-directed Impulse starring Theresa Russell. There are also shades here of TV's Under Suspicion and Prime Suspect series. Severance plays Mel (full name: Melanie), the only woman on an LAPD detective team assigned to capture a serial killer who slashes his female victims. One of Mel's partners is in love with her, another is black and in the closet, and the other says enlightened things like, "Just keep yer panty shield on." Of course, the only man to rev her motor is the primary suspect, Connor Ashcroft (played by John Allen Nelson, who co-wrote and co-produced this movie with Max Strom), a kinky ladies' man and senator's son. Some of the camera work is gorgeous, accented by long, fluid tracking shots such as the voyeuristic beaut that opens the movie. The dialogue can often be rough or clichéd, but it nevertheless comes up with some gems like this assessment: "Just like a sore dick. Can't beat it." In the final analysis, Criminal Passion has more style than substance and, even then, the style often falls short of its mark. But this 1993 film, seemingly released straight-to-video, deserves a fate far better than this certain condemnation to obscurity. - Marjorie Baumgarten
D: Paul Verhoeven; with Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Daniel O'Herlihy, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith, Miguel Ferrer, Robert DoQui, Ray Wise, Felton Perry.
This unexpected 1987 sci-fi smash, the first of many stateside hits to be made by foreign arthouse director Paul Verhoeven, is finally available, a mere eight years later, in its original, uncut version. Widely praised for its darkly funny look at big business in the future, as well as disowned for its brutal violence, those who thought Robocop was too violent in its theatrical version had best stay away from this latest Criterion restoration, as all of the extra footage consists of (you guessed it) more violence. Luckily for those squeamish folks, this new material - which adds footage to ED 209's hilarious boardroom malfunction and Peter Weller's horrific execution (making use of an astonishingly lifelike Weller puppet) - barely amounts to over a minute of screen time... although it is a highly memorable minute. The disc is slightly, and accurately, letterboxed, but the real treat here is the insightful commentary track from director Verhoeven, producer Jon Davidson, and writer Ed Neumeier that prompts all sorts of new ways of looking at the film - from Robocop/Murphy as a Christ figure to a retelling of Paradise Lost. In comparison, the supplementary section comes across as disappointingly weak and lazy, much more interested in testing out new laserdisc technology (the text moves and shifts along with stills and footage from the film) than actually dishing out any genuinely interesting information. With the notable exception of a section showcasing the storyboard art of planned, but unfilmed, sequences, this document fails to live up to Criterion's perfectionist standards. However, despite these drawbacks, it's really nice to see Robocop treated with the respect it deserves. It's also nice to see how well the movie holds up in the wake of two lackluster sequels, a television series, and an animated series - none of which ever matched the style, wit, and, now more than ever, the guts of the original. The movie is presented in frame-perfect CAV, which allows viewers frame-by-frame access to some of the greatest blood squibs in cinema history, familiar Dallas skylines, and absolutely wonderful stop-motion animation which, incidentally, serve to remind us of how much more inventive special effects were before the advent of digital technology. - Joey O'Bryan