In other words, there's not a thing to admire in good old Jack, played by the gifted Gary Oldman (Francis Ford Coppola's leering Dracula). In last year's relentlessly cynical Bad Lieutenant, at least dirty cop Harvey Keitel managed one last, defining act of decency. In Medak's thoroughly unrepentant black comedy, no one even thinks about it. The plot and dialogue of this film noir takeoff is so infested with double-crosses and felonious intentions that you feel like taking a shower when you get home.
That's what makes it so gooooood.
Director Medak, a Hungarian-born filmmaker who emigrated to London when Khrushchev invaded Budapest in 1956, showed his gift for social satire in The Ruling Class and A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. Lately, though, he's turned to real-life crime dramas like The Krays amd Let Him Have It--stylized, slightly synthetic pieces based on actual British cases.
Medak's two instincts--the comic and the reportorial--come together well in Romeo, although the director doesn't have a native's feel for tough New York talk or the fugitive crackle of the streets. What he does have is a highly developed sense of the absurd...and the nastiest femme fatale since Barbara Stanwyck hung 'em up. Lena Olin, the Swedish star of The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Enemies, A Love Story, steals this movie from Oldman as Mona Demarkov, a sizzling, one-armed Russian vixen who's already taken over the rackets in Queens and means to make all New York her domain through seduction, brutality and wit.
Like everything else in the movie, we don't quite take Mona literally--there's a nice tinge of caricature about her--but when, handcuffed and wounded, she leg-whips Oldman from the back seat of his car, then smashes the windshield and scuttles off in miniskirt and high heels, we see she's a force to be reckoned with--just in case we didn't already surmise that from her flaming red hair and the icy seduction in her voice.
This memorable creature is the work of producer/writer Hilary Henkin, who also puts some fizz into the other female characters--Annabella Sciorra as the bad cop's suspicious wife, and Juliette Lewis (late of Cape Fear) as his jilted mistress. In the face of so much feminine vengeance, the low-living Jack gets no more breaks than he deserves. Neither does Roy Scheider--a literary-minded godfather who winds up buried alive next to the Brooklyn Bridge.
The venom never lets up in this bleak, black comedy, and neither do the nefarious turns of fate. After two hours I imagined I could hear Medak cackling hideously behind the camera.