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Heaven's Prisoners
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by Jack Sommersby

"Lukewarm Gumbo"
2 stars

Well, I'll take it over the other 1996 movie Baldwin starred in, "Ghosts of Mississippi," but that's not exactly a high compliment.

Like the definition of bayou, the New Orleans crime picture Heaven's Prisoners is mostly sluggish and stagnant despite a first-rate cast and able crew who obviously labored hard making a movie they clearly believed in. It's not a haphazard, impersonal production that's the result of hacks and half-thinkers; it's a well-intentioned, honorable one that tries to be more character-oriented than action-prone. The overriding problems are a mystery story that has absolutely no immediacy, and a meandering narrative that never manages to get out of second gear, both of which are made even more detrimental by an overlong running time of one-hundred-and-thirty-one minutes. Alec Baldwin co-produced along with taking on the starring role of Dave Robicheaux, an ex-big-city cop eking out a peaceful living as a bait-shop owner in New Iberia. A recovering alcoholic who left New Orleans for the good of his health and wife Annie (Kelly Lynch), Dave has made it a point of minding his own business and staying away from high-stress situations that might cause him to relapse back to the bottle; his docile existence hasn't quite chased away all the demons (as the movie opens, he's taking confessional at a church, telling his priest that even though picking up just one drink could end everything he's built up, he still has the thirst for it), but being away from all of the corruption and double dealings of his previous profession has made his spiritual and recovery path a lot smoother. That is, until one fateful day out on his boat when he and Annie witness a struggling small aircraft crash into the water; strapping on a nearly-depleted oxygen tank, Dave dives in and manages to save the one live passenger, a six-year-old girl, before completely running out of oxygen. (The staging of the crash is subpar due to some horrendously-fake CGI effects, but the timing of Dave making it to the surface in the nick of time is acute.) At the hospital he learns the girl only speaks Spanish and is probably an illegal, so with no surviving parent to take her, he and Annie, a childless couple, bring her back to their house and tend to her. The next day a DEA agent shows up with some questions, intriguing Dave as to why a government agency is interested; and to protect the girl he's named Alafair, Dave insists there were only five passengers on board rather than six. The agent, knowing he's lying, is content with letting the matter drop, but not before unsubtly letting Dave know he'd best not start acting like a cop again and purusing things. This unintentionally has the opposite effect, though. Dave convinces himself he needs to find out more about what's going on, part of which is true but is also the case of his will-always-be-a-cop self using it as a thinly-disguised excuse to get back into the action. He's soon descending on his old New Orleans stomping grounds to pay a visit to some informants who might know a few things, which sets off a chain of events that will soon bring unintended consequences barreling down on him

Unfortunately, it's not until this twenty-minute mark that the plot finally starts to kick in. Texture and characterization are important, to be sure, but by this point you get the feeling you're in for the long haul because the treatment of this far-from-tantalizing material thus far is more than a bit self-indulgent -- like another neo-noir, Dennis Hopper's The Hot Spot, it covers ground that could have easily been done so in about half the amount of time. Luckily, the ensuing supporting characters are colorful, and the actors playing them make well-etched impressions, and for a while they juice things up. Dave goes to see Robin Gaddis (Mary Stuart Masterson), a stripper in a low-rent dive with a business name that was in one of the dead passenger's pockets; she comes up with a name but cautions Dave to keep her out of it because he was associated with the criminal underworld. However, she's overheard by the bartender, who drops a dime on her with a phone call, and the next day she's got one of her fingers in a splint. (Masterson, usually an acquired taste, plays this lush with biting wit.) Later that same day Dave himself is assaulted by two brutes sent to tell him he should back off. Dave evens the score with the bartender in not so nice a manner, and then goes to visit his childhood friend Bubba Rock (Eric Roberts), a well-connected, medium-level crime lord, at his posh mansion. Still buddies despite their legal differences, they briefly talk about old times until Dave runs the name of one of his assaulters by him; Bubba claims to know him but not of his whereabouts, but he'll check on it. (Decked out in a satin robe and a head of cornrolls, Roberts, who can overact when given the chance, brings dimension and appeal to this incorrigible rascal. He manages to be forceful without going heavy on the machismo.) We're also introduced to Bubba's take-no-guff wife Claudette (Teri Hatcher), who enjoys needling her husband and taking advantage of the protective stature she's attained from the marriage. It's her rather than Bubba who volunteers where the assaulter can be located. (When Dave first sees her, she's standing nude on a balcony with a butterfly tattoo on one of her nether regions; and Hatcher plays this femme fatale with a carnal sexiness that melts a small hole in the screen.) From here, the movie comes down to a series of double crosses and murders with a considerable amount of padding in between, with the middle section especially lumpy. A certain character dies a particularly brutal death, which sends Dave straight back to the bottle, so we get plenty of drunken scenes and crying scenes and internal-simmering scenes, all of which neither enhance the plot nor deepen the characters -- they're rudimentary elements that are less organic to the story and more of an excuse to dabble in pathos to, again, make us feel we're watching something other than a standardized crime tale. By then you feel like calling the movie out on its naivety, because we're putting more effort into staying involved than the movie is at properly pulling us in.

Granted, Heaven's Prisoners is handsomely mounted. A gifted cinematographer making his feature-film debut, Harris Savides bathes it with stylishly expressive light: whether doing interiors or exteriors, the visuals pleasurably work on you while stopping just short of eye candy; you know real-life settings don't look this good, but it's been done with such intelligent flair we're more than willing to surrender and just give in to it. And the director, Phil Joanou, as he demonstrated in the fine Boston gangster picture State of Grace, has a real knack for canny camerawork that also stops short of odious showboating. Though he can't redeem some of the bum scenes, he engineers a knockout extended action sequence near the end that starts out with a shootout in a flat that then spills out into the street and climaxes with a runaway cable car full of passengers. Dizzingly edited for maximum impact, it jumpstarts your system while making you regret having had to wait so long down the line for it. The movie has some reasonably persuasive atmosphere, but the location shooting doesn't really take full advantage of the city like the far-better The Big Easy did; and when it comes to the twists and turns, which should snap together with precision, they're not all that tantalizing and fail to wow on us. Some of this can be attributed to the two screenwriters, Harley Peyton and Scott Frank, but a good deal it is inherent in the source material: the same-title book in author James Lee Burke's Robicheau series. With the exception of his early efforts The Neon Rain and Black Cherry Blues, Burke's works are frustratingly amorphous and enervating; they lack the tautness and compression that all good mysteries need. We keep waiting for the story's revelations to justify all the overdeliberate treatment, and when they arrive we're nonplussed, almost hostile to them for their vapidity. (This is the kind of movie where a thermos of gin rickeys and drink coasters are plot devices, which are more incidental than integral.) It also would've helped had Baldwin injected more fire into the lead character. He's perfect during Dave's drunken moments (when he tells one of Claudette's bodyguards to go screw himself, his dog, and his mother, Baldwin delivers the line with a mischievous smile that's all his own), but otherwise he pulls back like he were afraid of truly delving into the character's wounded soul and emotional turmoil -- he's like a second-year acting student who can't break through the inhibition that's hindering his way to "truth." So with a clunker of a hero and a lackadaisical mystery angle (not to mention a limp-noodle of a concluding scene that makes no logical or behavioral sense), Heaven's Prisoners can't really be appreciated as anything other than a well-cast curio. It stops to smell the roses much too often to actively enage us in any involving way, and coming out of the theatre we wish we'd been the ones sloshed on all those gin rickeys.

Sporadically released at the time, the studio obviously had no confidence in the movie, and it died a quick box-office death.

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originally posted: 09/12/11 06:43:49
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  17-May-1996 (R)
  DVD: 07-Oct-2003



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