By John H. Foote
In the early eighties the most exciting new actors in movies were Mickey Rourke, Eric Roberts, William Hurt, and Robin Williams. By the end of the decade, Williams was working steady, doing impressive work consistently. Hurt, having won an Oscar and three consecutive nominations could not draw an audience, while Roberts and Rourke, their astonishing talent undeniable, had made enemies in the business and struggled to find good roles. By the nineties Roberts was finished as his sister’s star rose and Rourke had gone onto a boxing career.
Roberts and Rourke came together to create pure acting magic in this caper film, a sometimes remarkable film that has two young actors at their dazzling best. Watching them in the film as cousins must be what it might have been to watch a young De Niro and Pacino in their youth. The pair work in a high-end restaurant where Charlie (Rourke) is the host and Paulie (Eric Roberts) is a waiter, infamous for ripping off the restaurant hundreds each shift. When he gets them fired, they look for a fast scheme for some quick cash. Hooking up with an old safe cracker, Barney (Kenneth McMillan), they break into an old warehouse, crack the safe and take the mountain of cash waiting to be taken. But it goes very wrong when Charlie learns they have robbed the local mafia chieftain Bedbug Eddie (Burt Young) whose eyes blaze like portals to hell.
Their lives now in immediate danger Charlie tries to figure out a way out, Paulie carries on as though nothing has happened. And that has always been their relationship, Paulie is reckless, secretive, cannot be trusted in his schemes whereas Charlie is forever cleaning up his cousin’s mess. But when they steal from the psychotic Bedbug Eddie, their lives are in peril. The Bedbug orders Paulie mutilated, so his thugs cut off his thumb, before delivering him to Eddie to work as a coffee boy. Tormented by the gangster, Paulie gives up Barney, who flees to Chicago and Charlie, who has a plan that just might make him the pope of the area.
Rourke was a rising star when this film was released, a hugely gifted actor, so subtle, beatific really, though he turns on a dime and instantly radiates danger. Possessed of a soft voice and beautiful smile, an intimate grin, he was the heir apparent to Nicholson and De Niro. His performance as Charlie is superb, delivered at the height of his career. After breaking through in Diner (1982) and later in Rumble Fish (1983) he had his pick of roles.
Frustrated as Charlie, trying to stay afloat, trying to keep his girlfriend happy, keeping Paulie out of harms way and saving himself from being hacked up or killed is a full-time job for him, and he feels the walls closing in. But his love for Paulie, who he knows would never put him in harms way intentionally, is enormous.
Eric Roberts exploded into movies in The King of the Gypsies (1978), but it was his astonishing performance as a seething Paul Snider in Bob Fosse’s Star 80 (1983) that launched him. As the man who murdered then sodomized Playmate of the Year Dorothy Stratton, Roberts was mesmerizing and terrifying at the same time, a darkly brilliant, unsettling performance that remains very difficult to watch. When I hear the word sleaze, I think of Snider as portrayed by Roberts. How he was snubbed for an Oscar remains one of great injustices.
As Paulie he was electrifying, always in motion, always talking, his mind never ceasing to scheme. Mortified when accused of hurting Charlie, he accepts no responsibility for anything that goes wrong, it is always someone elses fault. Yet he is possessed with a childlike innocence, a sweetness that allows us to understand why Charlie loves him so. The scene where he comes to Charlie mutilated, flying high on pain killers, is shattering, and Roberts is perfection, taking it to the edge without ever going over the top. Rourke plays the scene equally good, weeping for what has been done to his cousin, enraged, but grateful he has not been given up.
Watching the two actors bounce off, feed off each other is breathtaking. They seem to draw energy from each other, portraying the characters to utter perfection, as if they had known one another all their lives. Crossing the street Paulie loops arms with Charlie, and while listening to another scheme, Charlie smiles that beatific Rourke smile in wonderment at his crazy cousin’s ever moving mind. They are a wonder to experience.
Geraldine Page has a small but vital role as the mother of a crooked cop, very aware of all her son’s dirty dealings just as she is about other cops on the take. She spits her words at the two investigating police officers, who she knows to be crooked, like a cobra spitting venom.
Burt Young, who came to fame as Paulie in the Rocky franchise, earning an Oscar nomination for Rocky (1976), is terrifying as Bedbug Eddie, as dangerous a gangster as you will encounter on screen. His little porcine eyes blaze with intensity as his mind whirs with thoughts of the horrors he is going to unleash on you. A true psychopath, he is the kind of guy better off dead, because alive he will do you harm. For his role Young deserved another Oscar nomination, he steals every scene he is in.
Directed by Stuart Rosenberg, the emphasis is on the acting and atmosphere (seedy, dark) which was also the case with his masterpiece Cool Hand Luke (1967) and The Laughing Policeman (1975). This was his last good film.
Good, not great, just good.
But man, the acting takes it to another level.
Sadly, by the mid-nineties, neither Roberts nor Rourke were visible to audiences or critics. Rourke had a great run post-Pope, with Year of the Dragon (1985), in particular Angel Heart (1987), Barfly (1987) and Johnny Handsome (1989) but would very quickly become unemployable. For Roberts it was worse, his drug addiction ruined him within a year of earning a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for Runaway Train (1985). When Rourke made a stunning comeback in The Wrestler (2008), accepting his Independent Spirit Award for Best Actor, he called our directors and producers to find his brother Roberts a great part.
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”