August 23, 1991 saw the release of two American suspense thrillers by notable overseas directors. Best reviewed, highest grossing and first alphabetically was Kenneth Branagh’s DEAD AGAIN, starring Kenneth Branagh and his then-wife Emma Thompson, written by Scott Frank (PLAIN CLOTHES).
Under the opening credits are an old timey montage of 1940s newspaper headlines detailing the story of a singer named Margaret Strauss (Thompson), who was stabbed to death with scissors, and then her husband Roman “The Maestro” Strauss (Branagh) was convicted of murdering her. The opening is done in black and white, with The Maestro getting a weird haircut and posing with evil smiles in the shadows as he tells reporter Gray Baker (Andy Garcia in his followup to THE GODFATHER PART III) that he loves his wife. When Baker asks if he killed her, he leans over and whispers to him and you’re supposed to wonder what he said I guess. But, like, what would he say? Definitely no? Arguably yes?
Anyway the main story is 40 years later when private detective Mike Church (also Branagh), who specializes in finding lost heirs and speaks in a shifting series of dorky American accents that I don’t think is intended to be funny, reluctantly agrees to do a favor for a priest he knows (Richard Easton, YOUNG WARRIORS). A mysterious amnesiac woman who does not speak (Thompson again) showed up at the orphanage where he grew up, and he agrees to drop her off at the hospital, but when he sees all the scary mentally ill people she’d be with he feels bad and lets her sleep at his apartment. No, he doesn’t do anything untoward, but yes, he quickly falls in love with her and acts like a weirdo.
He tries some different tacts, failing to find her identity, before bringing her to a hypnotist (Derek Jacobi, THE SECRET OF NIMH) who unlocks some of her childhood trauma and then, supposedly, visions of a past life, after which she still doesn’t remember who she is, but does start talking. Mike tells her it’s weird hearing her voice, like if his cat suddenly started talking, which is a pretty funny line. (I wish she had a bizarre voice, but it’s just normal Emma Thompson voice.)
Of course we start to see more of the black and white flashbacks, sometimes in long stretches telling us about how Strauss was thought his wife was having an affair with that reporter, and they had a housekeeper named Inga (Hanna Schygulla, BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ, THE DELTA FORCE) with a weird little son named Frankie (Gregor Hesse, THE WIZARD) who reminds me of that kid in DEEP RED. In the present day Mike has a horndog best friend named Piccolo Pete (Wayne Knight, V.I. WARSHAWSKI) and seeks advice from a psychiatrist named Cozy Carlisle (Robin Williams, also in HOOK, THE FISHER KING and SHAKES THE CLOWN that year) who speaks to him while stocking shelves at a grocery store, because “Okay, I slept with a patient or two. I still cared about them. I loved being a doctor. I used to not charge half of my patients. Then the fucking State comes along, they send some bitch undercover, and I’m fucked. It ain’t fair, is it?”
(Williams is, of course, pretty captivating in his couple of scenes playing this insightful sleazeball.)
When I was younger I assumed Branagh was very respectable, because he did Shakespeare and he’s British and stuff. To an American, a British accent makes an actor seem at least 25% better than no accent. But after revisiting MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN and now this I wonder what is up with this dude. He seems to have a knack for casting himself as self-centered dickholes that I think we’re supposed to like? And in this case I really don’t think he’s supposed to come across as as of much of a whiny nerd as he does. But I’m not positive. Like FRANKENSTEIN this has some fun ideas and some cool looking parts, but it comes off as kind of flailing and hysterical, with a score by Patrick Doyle (SHIPWRECKED) that sounds good on its own but doesn’t know when to calm the fuck down for a while. It does get kind of fun when the twists start happening in the end and we start to piece together which character is a reincarnation of which character (it’s not necessarily the same actors) and which flashback characters are still alive and involved. And I do appreciate some of the ludicrousness of the plot – like the idea that if you live to be old enough you might know several people who look identical to people you used to know who are reincarnations of other people you used to know – but at times I just found it annoying.
Here are my favorite parts, though:
1. After the mystery lady has been staying with Mike for a couple days they, you know… knock boots, as we might have said back then. And the the next day a dude (Campbell Scott, THE SHELTERING SKY) shows up at the house all Katherine, it’s me! Doug! Your fiance!
2. Mike immediately yells, “Hey, who the hell are you?” Uh, Mike, I believe he’s saying he’s the guy whose fiance you just fucked even though you knew she had amnesia and didn’t remember who she was.
3. But actually Mike’s completely-selfish skepticism turns out to be correct. During the conversation this “Doug” says something that doesn’t quite make sense and instead of trying to cover he suddenly turns around and hauls ass like it’s Streets of San Francisco or some shit. Unfortunately there are no wah wahs, but Detective Mike Church chases after him and they fight and Doug does a spin kick! Not Van Damme worthy, but better than most of us could manage. Funny shit. More of that, please.
4. There’s a part where they’re crossing a street in traffic and there’s an ADR line of someone in a car yelling, “You’re a butthead!”
5. Andy Garcia’s character shows up in the present day wearing old man makeup and he begs for a cigarette which he then smokes through his tracheotomy hole.
6. By far the best thing in the movie: In the black and white scenes Strauss mistakenly believes Andy Garcia is getting it on with his wife, so he punches him and Garcia does a full 360 degree spin and then tips over into the pool. I rewound it a couple times. I would respect Branagh more as a director if he put this kind of Popeye shit in all of his movies. (To be fair I haven’t seen the Poirot ones.)
Perhaps due to that amazing punch out, reviews were largely positive. Though Gene Siskel dismissed it and correctly made fun of Branagh’s accent, Roger Ebert gave it four stars and said it would “inspire comparisons to Welles and Hitchcock” because “his spirit, his daring, is in the same league.” Jacobi was nominated for a British Academy Film Award for supporting actor, and Doyle’s score was nominated for a Golden Globe.
This was only the second movie by screenwriter Scott Frank. He had LITTLE MAN TATE the same year and another thriller, MALICE, in ’93. Then he did GET SHORTY, but he got on my radar with OUT OF SIGHT, which is still one of my very favorite movies. He’s also had a hand in MINORITY REPORT, THE WOLVERINE and LOGAN and directed THE LOOKOUT, A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES and The Queen’s Gambit. So I do not begrudge him a DEAD AGAIN. He paid his debt for it a long time ago.
Branagh went on to direct MARY SHELLEY’S SHIRTLESS FRANKENSTEIN BY KENNETH BRANAGH, but is best known for JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT.
Thompson was on an episode of Cheers the next year.
The lesser known thriller that came out the same day was DEFENSELESS, from director Martin Campbell (CRIMINAL LAW). For some reason only a 14-minutes-shorter TV edit was released on DVD, so I watched it on VHS. Because of that I actually fell for it for half a second when it started with the opening of a porno called BALL BUSTERS. It seems like a fictional porno like LOGJAMMIN’, but they show a poster for it saying it’s directed by Alex de Renzy, an actual ‘70s porn director still active at that time, so I looked it up and it’s actually listed on IMDb. (He directed 13 other movies that year, 6 of them with the word “anal” in the title.)
Anyway it opens with the movie screening for who you would assume was the director but I guess it’s the star, “Jack Hammer” (John Kapelos, THIEF, WEIRD SCIENCE). Suddenly a big belligerent dude, Sherman Bodeck (George P. Wilbur, FIRESTARTER, THE RUNNING MAN), storms in to attack him because the girl in the movie is his daughter.
This is a weird complication for defense lawyer T.K. Katwuller (Barbara Hershey, THE STUNT MAN), who is trying to get a deposition from someone from this porn company to prove that her client Steven (J.T. Walsh, BACKDRAFT) is just their landlord and had no way of knowing they were doing underage porn in his warehouse. A way bigger complication is that she’s started seeing Steven and then her best friend from Smith College, Ellie (Mary Beth Hurt, D.A.R.Y.L.) runs into her at a restaurant and shows a picture of her husband and it’s Steven. And then she invites her over for dinner.
That, of course, is a weird night. Ellie is a nice folksy southern girl who says “you haven’t changed a hair” instead of “you haven’t changed a bit,” but she’s a little intense. And Steven infuriatingly acts like everything is normal, except that he’s bizarrely cuddly with their daughter Janna (Kellie Overbey), who causes a scene for some reason, calling T.K. “unprofessional” and saying she can’t be their lawyer.
T.K. later goes to Steven’s office after hours to tell him what a shitty thing this was to do to her, but she finds evidence that he also lied to her and is involved in the porn company. So when he gets there she starts screaming and slapping at him and he grabs her and they kind of wrestle so she grabs a letter opener off the desk and starts stabbing at him with it and gets away from him and runs off.
As you may know from some later Martin Campbell movies, he can bust out some serious chops when he wants to, and this is a great sequence. She gets in her car and looks at herself in the mirror and realizes how much blood she has on her, and starts to freak out. She calls up to Steven’s office asking if he’s okay. He doesn’t answer.
So the camera tracks her going into the building, up the elevator, into his office, following a trail of things that have been knocked over and what seems like maybe more blood than she could’ve caused, maybe not? Smears, handprints, a sink full of bloody paper towels. And then she finds him a bathroom stall, dead. Gulp.
To her it must seem like “oh shit, I didn’t know I was killing him,” but we’re looking for plot twists, so we wonder if one of the other people with reason to be mad at him might’ve finished the job. We don’t know.
But the point is the police think Ellie did it. And Ellie thinks T.K. should be her lawyer, even though she says she can’t because she’s a material witness. The homicide detective on the case, Beutel (Sam Shepard, BABY BOOM) is one of those cops that doesn’t straight up say “I suspect that you are the killer” but basically lets “I suspect that you are the killer” implications drip from every syllable he ever says to her and every smirk or squint he points anywhere near her direction. When she’s at home by herself and he’s at his home by himself, if he’s facing northeast, she can feel his suspicion and her ears get hot, is my guess.
One of the real thrills of the movie is that George P. Wilbur, who plays guy-who-does-what-George-C.-Scott’s-character-in-HARDCORE-wanted-to-do Sherman Bodeck, is a veteran stuntman going back to Howard Hawks’ EL DORADO, and had played Michael Myers in HALLOWEEN 4 (and later 6). This is perfect because he just comes in and attacks, and he has a big chase/fight scene with T.K. where he manhandles her pretty much like Michael Myers without a mask. And there’s a shot of him punching through a shower door with his bare hands. They show his face really clearly so you know he did his own stunt.
An action beat I love is when Beutel shows up and points a gun at him so he puts his arms around T.K. and lifts her up – a literal human shield. And he moves toward the detective and then actually tosses her on him to knock him out of the way. That’s a hell of a move.
Another lesser known but cool to me horror figure who appears is Christine Elise (CHILD’S PLAY 2), as the underage star of BALL BUSTERS whose victimization is the reason for the rampage. She and her mom (Sheree North, MANIAC COP) are terrorized by her dad, who has turned his obviously very legitimate grievance into an excuse to just flip out on everyone. It’s that creepy thing where a father’s protectiveness of his daughter turns into weird possessiveness of her sexuality (see: Bruce Willis in ARMAGEDDON) and then pushed further into insanity.
The pacing is not perfect. I feel like there’s some drag when it becomes a court room drama for a bit, but it gets back on track. And it’s not only the chases and reveals that are interesting. There’s a pretty great scene where she goes to the hospital to ask opening-scene-victim Jack Hammer some questions. I guess Bodeck cut his dick off, and he’s desperate for support so he opens up emotionally to her even though he barely knows her. I also like way earlier when she does a deposition of another porn star who only answers to Bull Dozer (Jay O. Sanders, V.I. WARSHAWSKI), and he’s kind of a loud-mouthed jerk but when it gets to the topic of the underage actresses he seems at least bummed out that somebody let it happen.
T.K. doesn’t fit into Sarah Connor Summer and the age of THELMA & LOUISE as far as being an aspirational woman-you-don’t-want-to-mess-with type of character, and every review I found complains that she’s an idiot. (I’m sure I’m forgetting what specific choices they were bothered by – I tend to believe people will make mistakes when being attacked and/or trying to hide their guilt.) But I do think she’s a more complex female lead than we usually see a movie like this based around. I like that she’s an Attractive Professional in her 40s who’s happily single and childless; Ellie says something unintentionally condescending about this, before we know how fucking precious that is since her husband is a cheater who makes underage porn and that she’s willing to let her own daughter be a victim.
Even on VHS you can tell it’s a pretty nice looking movie. Cinematographer Phil Meheux also had HIGHLANDER II: THE QUICKENING that year. (A beautifully shot movie, whatever you may think of Planet Zeist.) I know this is not a very well known movie, and there aren’t exactly people clamoring for the thrillers of the ‘90s (except my friends at the podcast The Suspense Is Killing Us), but this seems worthy of blu-ray release, especially since Campbell followed it with NO ESCAPE, then GOLDENEYE, then MASK OF ZORRO (my personal favorite by him). He also did CASINO ROYALE, THE FOREIGNER and last week’s Maggie Q vehicle THE PROTEGE. And, um, GREEN LANTERN. Anyway, I think this one is kinda good.
According to the-numbers.com, DEFENSELESS opened at #10 on 666 screens, well below DEAD AGAIN on only 450, as well as HARLEY DAVIDSON AND THE MARLBORO MAN, which also opened that week and which I already wrote a good review of so go check that one out for full late August ’91 context.
Reviews I could find leaned negative, but not super harsh. Doug Brod in Entertainment Weekly gave it a C+, and correctly made fun of a scene where T.K. talks to herself (then scolds herself for talking to herself). Gene Siskel only gave this and DEAD AGAIN capsule reviews (below a full review of BARTON FINK, which was in limited release) but he gave this 2 1/2 stars and DEAD AGAIN only 1 1/2. I agree, Gene Siskel! I liked DEFENSELESS better!