V.I. Warshawski

July 26, 1991

Kathleen Turner is… V.I. WARSHAWSKI, a Chicago private detective who falls into a case when an ex hockey player she picks up at a bar dies in a suspicious explosion during an inheritance squabble. The movie was a notorious flop, making back less than half its $24 million budget, and Rotten Tomatoes calculates its reviews at 21% (though Roger Ebert and Janet Maslin liked it). But I’ve wanted to see it for a long time, at least since realizing it was a character from a series of novels. I haven’t read the books, but maybe that helps, because movies never seem to be able to capture these characters the way fans want them to (see: Parker, Jack Reacher, Matthew Scudder… I guess people like Jason Bourne and Lisbeth Salander?) and yet, when you don’t know any better, they make for fun movie material.

The novels are by author Sara Paretsky – the movie credits the whole series as its basis, but apparently it’s mainly from the second one, Deadlock. Though the author and character are noted feminists, Hollywood Pictures got three dudes to write the screenplay – Edward Taylor (no other movie credits), David Aaron Cohen (POINT OF VIEW starring John Savage) and Nick Thiel (Eight Is Enough, The Fall Guy, Magnum P.I., THE EXPERTS, FIREBIRDS, WHITE FANG). Actually, director Jeff Kanew says on the commentary track of the blu-ray and dvd from Kino-Lorber that he never met Thiel and didn’t use any of his work but that another guy who wasn’t credited did to a bunch of work. Anyway he’s a dude also, the one who did EDDIE MACON’S RUN, GOTCHA!, REVENGE OF THE NERDS, TOUGH GUYS and TROOP BEVERLY HILLS. They have one of those “hey, check this out” boxes around his name on the movie poster, so I guess that resume held some cachet in ’91.

It’s a movie that’s far from stylish, ends awkwardly with an ADR joke, and has a score by Randy Edelman (THE CHIPMUNK ADVENTURE, KINDERGARTEN COP) that seems like it doesn’t have the guts to go full Harold Faltermeyer. It makes perfect sense that critics in 1991 would be more exhausted by a fairly routine detective story than I would now that it’s a time capsule. But I do think they were too hard on this movie. Turner is great, her character is great, there’s a bunch of funny dialogue and odd character details, and yes, the novelty of a female-led movie in this genre does make it special, even 30 years later.

V.I. – the V can stand for Vicky, Very, Virtuous, or “my first name,” depending on who asks – is introduced as kind of a mess, like many a male detective in an ‘80s movie. She doesn’t have dried out pizzas laying around and doesn’t cut them with scissors, but she doesn’t seem to have any clean clothes, her refrigerator reeks and she drives a piece of shit Plymouth Duster that’s constantly backfiring. “Do me a favor,” she says to some dudes on a sidewalk after parking. “Steal that.” (They decline.)

She lives in Chicago, not just close to Wrigley Field, but practically inside it – she comes home to find her ex-boyfriend Murray (Jay O. Sanders, TUCKER: THE MAN AND HIS DREAM) in her apartment to watch the game through the window. She cheers herself after a breakup and turning down a shitty case by going to the bar where her bartender best friend Sal (Lynnie Godfrey, New Monkees, Amen) keeps an emergency box containing jeweled high heels. She uses them to hit on a hunk she spots and then recognizes as injured hockey player Bernard “Boom-Boom” Grafalk (Stephen Meadows, Santa Barbara). Their flirtation is interrupted by him getting in an argument with his brothers Horton (Frederick Coffin, O’Malley from HARD TO KILL) and Trumble (Charles McCaughan, WAXWORK), but she gives him her card.

She ends up making out with Boom-Boom and then having to take care of his daughter (Angela Goethals, HOME ALONE). That sounds bad, but I like it because Kat is a Shane-Blackian 13-year-old who’s introduced strolling casually into V.I.’s bathroom during bath time, touching the gun laying on the cabinet and asking, “Are you fucking my dad?” She’s fun because she shows complete disdain for V.I. at first and still knows how to flip her shit after she changes her mind. I like the oddball touch that she has to carry around an egg to represent a baby for a school assignment (we had to do that too – mine was a goth). But before we know about that she pulls one egg out of the fridge and asks “Can I have an egg?” and it seems like a funny dig at V.I.’s lack of food.

(When you see an egg baby in a movie like this do you assume it’s safe, or that it’s gonna get it?)

After Boom-Boom is killed by an exploding tugboat and the cops (Charles Durning, BRENDA STARR, DICK TRACY) write it off as an accident, Kat hires V.I. for a dollar, insists on going along with her and proves to be adept at such skills as conning a bank teller into giving her an account number, escaping an abduction and stealing a boat (leading to a high speed chase on the Chicago River). She’s also quick-witted enough to play along with V.I. when they go to Murray’s apartment and he’s with a woman they want to scare away for laughs. She reprises her “Are you fucking my dad?” line. The mystery itself is not nearly as thrilling as these little encounters along the way, but I care more about the characters and the wisecracks in a story like this anyway. And those work.

Example: When V.I. finds Murray in her apartment she’s pissed that he’s drinking water out of a goblet. It’s a prized treasure she got from her mother, and he knows that, but there weren’t any clean dishes. It doesn’t turn out to be establishing something that will come up later, it’s just a goofy thing that happens. Some people don’t like stuff like that, but I love stuff like that (whether or not it refers to something from the books).

She deals with some pretty decent sleazeballs and villains in the movie. Stephen Root (MONKEY SHINES) has a brief appearance as a sausage factory owner (literally) whose primary role is to ask what the V stands for in the most disgusting way possible. Wayne Knight (DIRTY DANCING) is a crime lord who tells her “You know, the only reason you aren’t dead already is that we was in the same home room.” The more threatening of the Grafalk brothers is Trumble, a shitty metal sculptor with cartoonishly giant red hair. I love the weird moment where he tries to make her feel uncomfortable by saying, “You see, I fuck alot. More than 500 women,” and she says, “Just can’t get the hang of it, huh?”

I wouldn’t classify it as an action movie, but in addition to the boat chase there are some bits where men attack her and she fucks them up with a couple quick moves. When somebody says she does karate she corrects that it’s aikido. In the books, from what I’ve read, it is karate, so in my expert opinion this was inspired by Steven Seagal brining attention to aikido with ABOVE THE LAW, HARD TO KILL and MARKED FOR DEATH.

A character moment I really like is during the climactic showdown, when (ENDING SPOILER) Kat’s estranged mother (Nancy Paul, LIFEFORCE) tries to drown her, while she has a disarmed V.I. at gunpoint. Rather than trying to tackle her or something, V.I. runs and jumps into the water, bravely risking herself to save Kat, but also making the calculation that this lady is not gonna be a good enough shot to fire a handgun off a cliff and hit her in the water. She gives it her best, but V.I. called it correctly.

So how does this woman-led (but dude-written) movie fit into the context of Sarah Connor Summer? I’m sure there’s way more to her in the books, but I do think she’s a good character here, and that she doesn’t fall into the “make her feminist by giving her traditionally male qualities” category. Obviously there’s a certain amount of gender flip in that she’s a detective who kicks ass and that she’s kind of a… man-izer, I guess you could say. But I think it plays much less as “these male qualities make her powerful” than a “this woman does her own thing and doesn’t give a shit if people aren’t ready for it.” The promotional materials really emphasize her legs (remember when legs were a bigger deal than butts?) and V.I. finds joy in wearing high heels and fancy dresses (there’s a credit for Cerruti 1881 Paris at the end, just like Bruce Willis got in HUDSON HAWK). But more often she’s a blue jeans and brown jacket type of lady, because a person can be both. I’m not saying she’s the most complex portrait of womanhood we’re gonna see, but she’s more nuanced than I expected from the REVENGE OF THE NERDS guy, that’s for sure. I assume Turner (who okayed the REVENGE OF THE NERDS guy) had some influence on that.

V.I. teaches Kat to “Never underestimate a man’s ability to underestimate a woman,” and says she goes by her initials because “It’s harder for a man to patronize you if he doesn’t know your first name.” She does experience a ton of sexism, but doesn’t pull a THELMA & LOUISE on anyone. People call her ”babe” and talk about her “pretty little nose” and a bunch of yahoo frat boys chant “Babe alert!” when she’s jogging and the Lieutenant makes some comment about how if she did such-and-such she’d “be a happy housewife now.”

“I’m a happy detective,” she says. “I was a lousy housewife.”

According to Wikipedia the books do take place in Chicago (where Paretsky lives), and it sounds like they carried over some details like her jogging, the way she dresses, her enjoyment of long baths and her ability to let ex-boyfriends remain in her life, plus regular supporting characters like Murray, Sal, her downstairs neighbor Contreras (Herb Muller, JAWS 2) and her doctor Lotty Herschel (Anne Pitoniak, BEST SELLER).

I don’t think there’s any hint at it in the movie, but despite having a cop for a dad she’s supposed to be a liberal who was involved in the civil rights movement (she went on freedom rides in Louisiana) and anti-war protests, and hates Republicans (but only supports particularly progressive Democrats). She used to be a public defender and even as a private detective specializes in white collar crime and clients “who she feels are being bullied by the wealthier and more powerful of Chicago.” I guess the stories are usually about cases where the client can’t pay but she believes in their cause, which does happen in the movie.

Apparently “Boom-Boom” is her cousin in the books, but the name Grafalk comes from a character who’s not in the movie, among other changes. There’s no kid in Deadlock, but in other books V.I. “acts in a maternal manner towards teenagers neglected or abused by their parents.” On the commentary track Kanew says that earlier drafts were more faithful to the books, but Disney wanted it rewritten to be more like PAPER MOON. (They also wanted him to cast Milla Jovovich in the part.) In post-production he wanted to add a voiceover to recapture some of the feel of the books, and Turner agreed, but ended up never recording it.

There are currently nineteen V.I. Warshawski novels and four short story collections, published between 1982 and 2020. When the movie came out there were six novels. According to this 2001 interview, Paretsky was still working full time for an insurance company, singing in a choir and tutoring at a housing project when she sold the rights to Disney. She lamented that they own the rights to the first four books and the character in perpetuity, but was happy she got to quit her day job. She didn’t like what they did with her books: “I think the shape of the movie was sort of wobbling… and the whole tone just fumbled around. And then they didn’t put together an intelligible story line.” She also resented that they didn’t hire a female screenwriter, saying she didn’t feel qualified to adapt it at that time but “had friends who were begging to work on it and who were being told that they didn’t want women involved in it.” But she noted that Turner had “an incredible energy and intelligence” and that “I have to be honest: It was helpful to my career.”

I’m glad that was the case. It probly wasn’t great for anybody else’s career. According to the-numbers.com it opened wide (as you’d expect from Disney), but I can’t even find it on their weekly box office charts – it seems it didn’t even make it into the top 12 for its opening weekend. If these charts are accurate, it opened below the 8th week of CITY SLICKERS and the 14th week of THOUSAND PIECES OF GOLD (I don’t even know what that is!)

Why did it do that bad? Did people get turned off by the name? Just didn’t care about a detective movie? Could it really be that they were turned off by it being a woman? Were they right to leave Sarah Connor off the TERMINATOR 2 poster?

I don’t know, man, Turner looks pretty fuckin cool on the poster in my opinion. Maybe putting her legs in the middle of a giant W like it’s the bat symbol or some shit is presumptuous and/or objectifying. I don’t know. But I’m a convert. I’m pro-Warshawski. Fuck you, 1991 people, for all choosing MOBSTERS over this. You fuckin blew it.

Co-writer Taylor later co-wrote FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, THE MIRACLE SEASON and SPEED KILLS, while credited co-writer Thiel did THE ASSOCIATE and BAMBI II. Kanew credits this movie with his nearly decade-long break from directing before Kirk Douglas (who he’d directed in TOUGH GUYS) hooked him up with some Touched By An Angel episodes in 2000. Subsequent films include the National Lampoon’s branded ADAM & EVE and THE LEGEND OF AWESOMEST MAXIMUS.

Goethals was later in JERRY MAGUIRE and Todd Solondz’s STORYTELLING and on a bunch of TV shows, including 24. She was the lead in BEHIND THE MASK: THE RISE OF LESLIE VERNON, a meta-horror movie that I really couldn’t stand, but I think it’s fair to say it has a genuine cult following (which earned it a Scream Factory special edition) and from what I remember she was good in it.

I guess Turner wasn’t entirely out of the tough lady game after this if you count UNDERCOVER BLUES (1993), and she did reprise Warshawsky for two BBC Radio 4 audio dramas based on the novels Killing Orders and Deadlock. But I wish she’d been able to star in a series of Warshawski films, as intended.

The good news is another actress could absolutely do it now, and maybe be more faithful to Paretsky’s creation. Maybe even be made by women. They could go ahead and credit a few who didn’t work on it too, if they want. It would probly be a streaming series or something, but that’s fine. Until then, I need to check out some of the books.

P.S.: Summer of ’91 seems to have gotten away from the arcade scenes that proliferated early on, but this at least has a prominent appearance by the N.E.S. version of Duck Hunt.

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25 Responses to “V.I. Warshawski”

  1. I finished my dissertation on hard-boiled detective novels in the late-1990s, with my final chapter examining Sara Paretsky’s creation. I even titled it “Killer Eyes. Killer Legs. Killer Instincts.” I was very harsh on the V.I. movie, which to my mind ignored much of what Paretsky had accomplished. I rarely see any mention of the Turner movie, with good reason … no one remembers it. So I was intrigued by your review, and enjoyed your 21st-century take. You don’t make me want to go back and watch the movie again, but I like your suggestion that the time is right for a new movie series based on the books.

  2. I’m pretty sure I read the book this is more-or-less based on. I don’t recall caring for it very much. Felt a little too cutesie, in my opinion. It wasn’t the worst but I never felt compelled to explore the series further.

  3. Oh, I remember what my problem was. This was from a period when the Boomers were all sentimental about the black-and-white movies they used to watch on TV as kids so the detective genre often went nuts with the retro noir trappings. A lot of that stuff now feels like a pastiche more than the genuine article. You can practically hear the cheesy saxophone on the soundtrack. It all just felt a little on-the-nose, as I recall. There’s no kind of novel I love more than a detective novel but it has nothing to do with fedoras and snubnose revolvers and smoky rooms with ceiling fans.

    I would love to hear a defense of the series from someone more familiar with it, though. I’ve been trying to find a good crime series with a female protagonist for a long time and I keep striking out.

  4. Never saw that one, but it was on TV pretty often. In fact, I always thought it was some kind of failed TV pilot.

  5. I have mixed feelings about this one. It’s an agreeable time-waster, and Kathleen Turner is fantastic, but I get sick of the cornball dialogue. No one can ever get Warshawski’s name right, for instance, so we get to hear umpteen people call her “Wizuski” or “Wachotzi” or whatever. This is not funny the first time. It is not funny the tenth. You expect some wisecracking in a private eye story, but there are limits. Add in the directorial stylings of the REVENGE OF THE NERDS guy, and the overall tone is more REMINGTON STEELE than neonoir.

    I’ve read a couple of the books — not the one this is supposedly based on, though I hear most of the movie’s plot was cooked up by the screenwriters — and their tone was a lot more serious. No trace of their leftish politics in the movie, either, except maybe in that subplot where a union boss is being framed. In fairness, the teenage daughter is one of the film’s best parts, and I don’t think she has any counterpart in Paretsky’s stuff at all.

    Anyhow, now that we’ve got MOBSTERS and V.I. WARSHAWSKI out of the way, it’s time for a movie that premiered one day later. The next review has gotta be A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY, right? Right?!

  6. I get this confused with UNDERCOVER BLUES and together I think they signalled the end of Turner’s hot streak which had begun in 1981 with BODY HEAT. I’ve read a 2-3 of the books and I wouldn’t rule out reading more if they crossed my path, but I think Paretsky and Turner both deserved better. I also think the failure of this did much to close down the possibilities for female-led detective stories, although I’d admit that the success earlier that year of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS sent the genre in search of copy cats (and COPYCAT) for quite a while.

    Majestyk, if you like the Harry Bosch books, you may well like Connelly’s Renée Ballard books. Connelly writes like a reporter, for good or bad, but he does plot and he does detail without it getting tiresome.

    For what it’s worth I enjoyed the first series of Stumptown with Cobie Smulders, which seemed to shoot for and mostly hit a bisexual, hipster Magnum P.I. vibe. I was sorry to see that the pandemic had killed the show and plan to look out the Greg Rucka source comic series sometime.

  7. Borg: thanks for the recommendations. I’ve never actually read any Connelly. I’m not sure why. I guess I’m judging books by their covers and assuming his generic airport paperbacks are about roguishly handsome assistant DAs who discover conspiracies that lead to the highest levels of power and all that sub-John Grisham/Tom Clancy jazz. Had no idea they were just honest detective procedurals.

    I did start reading STUMPTOWN way back when and, like most everything Rucka writes, I liked it. Sadly it coincided with the cold-turkey end of my comics-reading days so I never finished it. Always meant to check out the show but that sounds less likely now that it’s cancelled. Maybe Rucka will continue the series in novel form like he did with QUEEN & COUNTRY.

  8. Maj, I hesitate to recommend anything to you because I’m sure you’re more well versed and discerning in this genre than I, but one that comes to mind is Thomas Perry’s series with Jane Whitefield. She’s not exactly a detective – she makes people disappear, which is not a euphemism, she literally helps people go into hiding. But it’s never that simple, so there’s a lot of similarities to detective stories.

  9. I don’t know, having never read Grisham or Clancy, but I’d like to think Connelly is a cut above those guys; the Bosch books in particular are decent procedurals. I’m not saying he’s top tier, but his heart is definitely in the right place.

    I didn’t know what THOUSAND PIECES OF GOLD is either but a moment or two with Google suggests it’s a western about Chinese immigrants, but it really doesn’t sound like the western John Woo and Nic Cage were supposedly gonna make.

  10. Maggie: I have one of those books but haven’t read it yet. The premise seemed up my alley. I will bump it up in the queue.

  11. So if we were to recast for today who we got playing the lead?

    Who is this generations Turner? Charlize Theron?

  12. Borg: I’m sure he’s a lot better than those guys. I just lumped him in with them because I only know him as the LINCOLN LAWYER guy, which means my brain assumes he writes legal thrillers, a genre I don’t like. Police procedurals are more my speed (though rapidly becoming a very guilty pleasure) so I’ll keep an eye out for Connelly in the used bookstore.

  13. This does sound like a premise which is screaming for a modern re-imagining, except that I simply don’t have any faith whatsoever that anyone making movies today has the ability to commit to and pull off a respectable hardboiled small-scale detective story. It’d end up ruined by gritty, humorless handheld realism, self-consciously center around a very labored social issue for bonus points, or it’d be pitched as a kind of pastiche parody that misses the point, or you’d have to juice it up into an action movie. None of that would really work. Time was, you could just make a mid-sized drama for adults and expect them to be entertained by the story. No high-concept hook or angsty pretensions to be about something required, just a good little story. That’s where this kind of thing lived, and the demise of that kind of filmmaking is why we can’t really get stories like this made anymore.

  14. Mr. S: I liked THE KID DETECTIVE. That was a very small scale detective story that was played a lot straighter than you’d think. It has jokes but isn’t a comedy, has no action so it isn’t an action movie, and isn’t about anything other than the detective’s disillusionment with himself and the world, which is what most detective stories are about. There isn’t even a high concept twist that turns it into a mindfuck thriller. It’s just a mystery, full stop. So it’s possible. Maybe that’s the kind of thing you can only pull off in Canada, though.

  15. I feel like this sort of thing does still exist, but now it would be a pay cable miniseries.

  16. I feel like I remember a cardboard standee off this in the movie theater lobby but I may be Mandela effecting that. I definitely remember it coming out but not charting at all is surprising. Maybe it was so low they didn’t bother reporting numbers.

  17. I have to agree with Borg9 that both Paretsky and Turner deserved better. The movie is good, but nowhere near great. And that pisses me off, because it should have been. Turner is an outstanding actress and Paretsky wrote some fine hardboiled detective fiction. I will say that I’m surprised that Disney made this, but on recollecting the movie, I probably shouldn’t be. Their stewardship explains the bad jokes and the kid (who was in all fairness very good), and an inability to really run with the solid material that the Sara Paretsky novels provide.

  18. Mr. M: You’ve probably already tried her, but Paretsky’s contemporary Sue Grafton made a career out of writing one character in the alphabet series. For me, they started off good became great and then tailed off at the end a bit. She made it to “Y” before she passed and I read every one. Back about the time this film came out I started both Grafton’s and Paretsky’s series. And while I liked the Paretsky series well enough, Grafton was the one that stuck. Some folks really like Janet Evanovich but I read the first four or five before tapping out.

    Since Grafton’s father was a writer and worked a little in the film business, she was absolutely against selling options on her books as she felt they would just be butchered. So we’ll never see a Kinsey Millhone series I guess…

  19. Zombo: Hollywood Pictures may have been a Disney sub-label, but this was back when other Disney labels were making films like “Ruthless People”. There were plenty of films released on these (and other) labels that were more “adult oriented” and Disney interfered in their content relatively little.

    This film had plenty of problems (mainly in the writing), but Disney’s ownership of Hollywood Pictures probably wasn’t one of them…probably.

  20. One of my favorite writers Jefferey Deaver, took a break from his famous Lincoln Rhyme series( the first of which, THE BONE COLLECTOR was filmed with Denzel and Jolie which was a decent if hardly great adaptation) to write a series on a woman detective Kathryn Dance who uses the art of “kinesics” (reading body language) to interrogate suspects and investigate cases. It’s pretty good.

  21. I really like this book series. VI stands for “Victoria Iphigenia” but the character dislikes the name. Many of the books have political themes, e.g. one about Dr Herschel’s abortion clinic and one about private prisons. Dr. Herschel is a Holocaust survivor according to canon. Give them a try, Vern.

  22. Mr. M,

    Did you hear about KID DETECTIVE because of my Letterboxd post? Does this mean I FINALLY steered you towards a movie you actually liked?

  23. Your review is definitely where I first heard about it. I’m sure there were one or two others that you brought to my attention that I enjoyed, but THE KID DETECTIVE was right up my alley. I grew up on Encyclopedia Brown so I’ve gravitated toward that premise in everything from VERONICA MARS to MYSTERY TEAM to BRICK. I even flirted with making my own series lead a former kid detective, but then I decided, nah, my dude’s not a narc. Instead of a former kid detective, he’s a former kid burglar who occasionally has to solve a crime to get himself out of trouble. A kid Bernie Rhodenbarr, if you will.

  24. I too immediately thought of THE KID DETECTIVE as an exception to Mr S.’s rule. I think I first heard about it from Red Letter Media. If anyone here hasn’t seen it, it’s worth checking out.

  25. Snowden: Good to know. I do have a knee-jerk reaction to Disney, which colors my reaction to their films. Which is probably unfair, since there’s been some good work out of many of their affiliates (like Hollywood and Touchstone).

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