One of my favorite movies last year was Steve McQueen U.K.’s heist movie WIDOWS. I feel like it got a little less attention than it deserved, but it stuck in my mind for weeks. So I got curious about the source material, a 1983 mini-series written by Lynda La Plante (Prime Suspect). It does exist as a PAL DVD but I don’t have access to it. I did, however, find a 2002 remake (also scripted by La Plante) that was an earlier attempt at an American version. This one takes place in Boston, though it was filmed in Toronto.
As I expected, this isn’t a patch on a patch of the McQueen version’s balls, but I was able to enjoy it for what it was. Keep in mind this aired on ABC, and at a time right before TV started to evolve into what we have now – The Shield and The Wire started that year. And also American Idol and The Bachelor. So this is the type of television event where you might roll your eyes a little at first, but then you get drawn in. And it’s interesting to see an alternate take on the material. The heist is different and the characters have different backgrounds than in McQueen’s, but the story isn’t too far off.
Mercedes Ruehl (LAST ACTION HERO) plays a pretty different version of Ms. Rawlins, who brings together her fellow widows of a heist gone wrong to finish a job their husbands had planned. She’s meaner and bossier than Viola Davis’ version, more of a mob wife. And she has the original name, Dolly. When she first encounters the other widows at the morgue she acts like they’re beneath her and has no interest in talking to them. When she later wants their help she still doesn’t really treat them as people she has something in common with. Ruehl is really good as a tough lady who eventually softens as she comes to see the others as cohorts instead of employees.
As Linda (Michelle Rodriguez in the ’18 version) we have Rosie Perez, in this version an employee of a used car lot. Instead of Elizabeth Debicki’s Alice we have Brooke Shields as Shirley, a timid aspiring actress who lives in a trailer park with her mom (Jayne Eastwood, DAWN OF THE DEAD remake). Cynthia Erivo’s scene-stealing Belle is Bella, played by N’Bushe Wright (BLADE). This time she’s a stripper whose dead boyfriend was an art forger.
None of the McQueen film’s story about the race for alderman is part of this, and yet as a mini-series it’s much longer (more than twice as long if IMDb’s 4 hour, 33 minute figure is correct – the DVD was either shortened or mislabeled). So the heist itself is longer and more complicated, more like a traditional high tech caper movie than the grounded McQ version. There’s rappelling down a surprisingly large vent (which requires lots of training).
Unique to this version: it’s an art heist. They’re trying to steal a Vermeer. That made me realize something I really like about the remake. They have to practice with weighted bags to make sure they can lift and walk with the amount of cash they need to steal. They don’t know if they can physically carry the burden of the mess their husbands left behind.
But this more far-fetched approach is also fun. Dolly owns a warehouse, so they build a mockup to practice the mission on, like UNCOMMON VALOR. Well before that there’s an ominous thread of foreshadowing in the form of comments about a smell in the warehouse that of course turns out to be a dead body (not of their making) that they eventually find on an upper level. (It’s kind of weird that they find red liquid and wonder what it is. Maybe if the production chose more of a weird dried blood color it would’ve made sense.)
But they can’t call the cops when they’re planning a heist, so Dolly commands the others to put the dead guy in a trunk and dump the car off a pier. By (reluctantly) accepting these orders they’re crossing the line of no return, making sort of a blood-sister pact of criminality. And it’s a little creepy because it’s not just fun caper stuff, they’re disposing of bodies like serial killers.
They all have little things going on in their own lives. The one that seemed phoniest to me is Shirley’s audition for what seems like a terrible stage production of The Sound of Music. She auditions very poorly and then freezes up when the casting director or whatever tries to get her to take her clothes off. It’s based on a thing that happens but is executed in a not believable way. Fortunately it sets up a scene I really like where Bella takes offense at Shirley’s complaints about the audition, as someone who takes her clothes off and dances for horny guys every night. Shirley scoffs that this is a different type of dancing that she auditions for. Big mistake. It leads to a dance off. But the joy of two women trading off moves dissolves the tension and it turns into them just doing different dances together like a couple of kids.
Of course, this is interrupted by corpse discovery.
The big plot twist happens much earlier in this version, so it doesn’t feel as big. The alteration I liked most is the way the husbands get killed at the beginning. As they’re fleeing in an armored car a cement truck rams into them, penetrates their vehicle with its chute and fills it with cement. An unusual sight and a fucked up way to die.
The series played as four episodes, premiering at 10 pm on August 6 against repeats of Judging Amy and Crossing Jordan.
Director Geoffrey Sax has mostly worked in television (Spitting Image, Tipping the Velvet, Victoria) but a few years after this he did a trio of theatrical releases: the Michael Keaton ghost movie WHITE NOISE (2005), the teen secret agent movie ALEX RIDER: OPERATION STORMBREAKER (2006) and the Halle Berry multiple personality drama FRANKIE & ALICE (2010).
P.S. While searching for graphics for this review I discovered yet another Lynda La Plante mini-series called BELLA MAFIA (1997), about pampered mob wives who have to take over the business and plan revenge when their husbands are murdered. But it turns out that’s not officially a remake of WIDOWS, it’s based on a different La Plante book from 1991.
P.P.S. I really just wanted to review this to remind everybody to see the new one.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.