Fish-Flavored Baseball Bat

It's a John Cleese reference.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

VHS Vednesday: The Art of Dying

THE ART OF DYING (1991). Directed by Wings Hauser. Starring Wings Hauser, Kathleen Kinmont, and Michael J. Pollard.

Perennial screen tough-guy Wings Hauser directs and stars as Jack, a hard-boiled Hollywood cop who won't hesitate to throw a perp through a window, yet still remains a hopeful idealist at heart, looking out for the runaways who come to L.A. with dreams of stardom. He does his best to rescue them from the pimps and send them back home to the Midwest (or wherever)...but his best isn't good enough for one teen would-be actress (T.C. Warner) who refuses to leave town and soon ends up dead. Taking a personal interest in the case, Jack learns that numerous aspiring actors and actresses have fallen victim to a crazed "director" (Gary Werntz) who has been auditioning them in re-creations of famous screen murder scenes (The Deer Hunter, Psycho, Scarface, etc.) in a, shall we say, cinema-verite style. (In one memorable monologue, the egomaniacal auteur proclaims his superiority to Cimino, DePalma, Scorsese, and Hitchcock, yet it never occurs to him that he's only copying the directors that he's deriding...he doesn't even have the creativity to stage a murder on his own! On the other hand, I'll grant you that he is better than Cimino...)
In between his investigations, Jack has to deal with his messed-up personal life, specifically his tempestuous relationship with a mysterious woman (Kathleen Kinmont), who shows up periodically at his beach house for hot sex, but refuses to tell him her full name or reveal any other information about herself, insisting that they keep it anonymous and physical rather than form any emotional attachment. Seriously, has anybody in the real world ever had this happen to them?
Wings Hauser makes a great screen villain (his murderous pimp in Vice Squad is one of the most chilling bad guys of the '80s), but he's less effective as a hero. He's certainly an appealing, competent actor, but the good-guy role holds him back from cutting loose and revealing the intensity that makes his villains so memorable. As if to prove the point, Gary Werntz' psychotic filmmaker steals the show from the comparitively bland hero, chewing the scenery with relish...right down to the climactic showdown, where Werntz shouts (with more petulance than pain) "STOP SHOOTING ME!"
Hauser proves more effective as a director, creating an appropriately sleazy atmosphere and crafting a number of memorable set pieces. Too bad he didn't continue in that field; he only made one more feature before concentrating full-time on acting.
Who's Leaving This Off Their Resume?
The supporting cast is full of familiar faces, with the top honors going to Michael J. Pollard, bringing his undefinable quirky Pollard-ness to his part as Jack's put-upon colleague, who complains "nobody ever listens to me" as the bodycount rises. The part as written may be generic "secondary cop" material, but Pollard makes it his own. Unfortunately, Sarah Douglas is unable to rise above the constraints of her role, and remains "secondary cop #2." The ever-reliable Sydney Lassick provides his usual nervous presence as a bartender menaced by the bad guys. And Ona Zee (her again!) shows up as a dead body, not even getting a single fame of "live" screen time. (One wonders whether the rest of her part wound up on the cutting room floor.)



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