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Phoenix
(1998)
 

Director: Danny Cannon        
Cast:
Ray Liotta, Daniel Baldwin, Jeremy Pivan, Angelica Huston


By the time I got to Phoenix, I was in the mood for something a little different than what I usually rent. And Phoenix was overall enough to satisfy my craving. Though derivative of both Elmore Leonard and Quentin Tarantino, it has enough original material to be fresh. If you must call it derivative, retitle it Pulp of Sight - Lite.

Harry (Liotta), a member of the Phoenix city police, drives his cop buddies crazy with his constant gambling. Not only does he bet on the track, but he'll make crazy bets with his fellow officers; at a death scene in the desert, he bets if he can cut and fell to the left a cactus by using the bullets in his gun. This craziness has driven Harry himself almost to that point, for since he almost always loses a bet, he soon finds himself $32,000 in debt to petty gangster Chicago (Tom Noonan, in a memorable performance). Chicago subsequently cuts Harry off from all the bookies in the city, and Harry finds himself in an unenviable position. Finding out that his cop buddy Henshaw (Anthony LaPaglia) moonlights as an advisor and collector for another loan shark named Louie, Harry convinces Henshaw and their fellow buddies to join him in a plan to rob Louie, with Harry planning to use his share to pay off his debts. Naturally, subsequent events don't quite go as they planned.

"I'm not gonna welsh on a bet," states Harry early on in the movie when Henshaw offers to break Chicago's legs. Harry also refuses an offer by Chicago to forgive the debt if Harry will murder a young man in prison that could prove damaging to Chicago - his ethics on this matter are firm. However, Harry also feels that there's nothing wrong in robbing a loan shark to pay off his debt. Liotta makes Harry a very intriguing man - certainly not a man that we'd like to know personally, but at a safe distance. It's interesting to piece together from key moments a look at Harry's personality. At one point, Harry is only $16,000 in debt. He could cut his losses and struggle to honestly pay back this amount. Instead, Harry feels the best way out of the situation is to call his bookie Seymour and bet another $16,000 - an obviously stupid move to us, but not to Harry. Such unbelievable behavior takes another interesting twist when we see another side of Harry's personality. Early on in the movie, he meets single woman Leila (Huston), and in his attempts to charm her admits that's he's quite a lowlife in many areas, and seems to believe his own words about this. Both sides of his personality are interesting, but placed together they become even more intriguing.

The scenes between Leila and Harry are among the best in the film, with believable evolution of the characters every time they meet. (The scene where Harry gives Leila a present is sweet and amusing.) Dialogue of this kind - where the characters talk about everyday things and the sort - is generally well written and sounds natural. However, undeniably inspired by the dialogue from Pulp Fiction, there are several monologues that sound too flip, too written instead of spoken. The monologue in the middle of the movie that draws a parallel with aquatic parasites the speaking character saw on National Geographic and the situation between he and the listening character does work. But there are also some awkward monologues that seem cut-and-pasted here and there to liven things up. Harry has a monologue about the movie King Kong (Why did the natives build doors in that wall big enough for Kong? And if the ape could climb the Empire State Building, why couldn't he climb that wall?), which is funny but doesn't seem to be there for any other purpose for an otherwise serious movie.

Phoenix is steadily directed by Cannon, who gives the sun dried local a professional look that not once betrays the movie's low budget. There are some story faults, but they are more of a fault with the screenwriter than with Cannon's direction. It's interesting to note that, aside from a gratuitous hostage taking in the early part of the movie, we never once see Harry, Henshaw, or their buddies do any police work. The romance between Harry and Leila, though sweet and giving an extra dimension to the characters, is never really resolved at the end, with the screenplay giving a quick exit to this subplot. And there is one ending too many, though the extra ending does add a neat little irony to what has previously happened, as well as changing Harry in a dramatic but yet believable way when you consider what he's been through. The rest of the movie, though, is strong enough to stand up despite these flaws, and there was enough originality to make me wonder what was going to happen to Harry and everyone else - this is a movie that's not predictable, and that alone makes it worth a look.

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Also: For A Few Lousy Dollars, Cheyenne Warrior, The Ambassador

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