You know how some people say if they go back in time and do it all over again, they wouldn’t change a thing? Well, I’m not one of those people. I would do a ridiculous number of things differently and space-time paradoxes be damned. Among the things I’d do differently, especially if I quantum leapt back to around 1986 or so, would be to tell myself not to be such a smug, condescending dickweed my then newly discovered punk rock lifestyle. But what can you do? I was fourteen and high on self-righteous non-conformist fury, certain beyond any sense of doubt that I had it right and everyone else was a poseur or mindless drone. And nothing set me off with a more fiery passion than when some dreg of mainstream entertainment dared play at having some sort of punk rock street cred. They thing they understand my world? Let me take you down to my world, baby, and show you what life on the wicked streets of Buckner, Kentucky is really like.
Yeah, maybe a bit much, but it’s the job of teenagers to be a bit much, and the job of weirdo teenagers to be insufferable know-it-alls. I’d also tell my younger self other things, like don’t throw out all those Star Wars toys, don’t steal that comic book, and maybe you should ask that girl Jane out on a date and take her somewhere other than the Vogue Theater parking lot. At least take her in to see Rocky Horror or something. But I lose myself in the honeyed backwaters of time travel. Point is, I was so busy in the 80s being outraged and insulted and perfecting my disdainful sneer that I missed a bunch of things I probably would have actually enjoyed. Of course, some things I missed because I was fourteen and living in a town of four-hundred people an infinity away from (to a fourteen year old, anyway) anything resembling a town of even modest size. But other things I missed because I was busy being judgmental about anything that referenced punk rock without conforming to my ideal of what it was to be a non-conformist. So, in long-winded fashion I get around at last to the point: Slam Dance was one of those things. Because it was called Slam Dance. But what hell did those poseurs in Hollywood know about slam dancing? I mean sure, it features Adam Ant and John Doe, but how punk were they? Not very! Right?
Of course, it’s also entirely possible I wouldn’t have appreciated Slam Dance nearly as much (or at all) back then, certainly not the way I appreciate it now. For the most part, 1980s me totally missed out on the neo-noir — or neon-noir, as the case may be — revival of that decade, other than I think To Live and Die in LA and maybe Dressed to Kill. I was too occupied with what was back then the time-consuming process of tracking down impossible to find holy grails like Make Them Die Slowly and Suspiria. Worthwhile endeavors to be sure, at least in the case of Suspiria, but I should have perhaps entertained a less narrow focus. Well, lessons learned, right (or as learned as lessons ever are for me), so we can fast forward to 2012 when an older, wiser, and obviously more refined me can sit back and assess the worth of Slam Dance without being weighed down by the baggage of newly minted punk angst.
Tom Hulce, trying perhaps to crawl out from under the weight of Amadeus, stars as the man with the most L.A. in the 1980s name of all time, C.C. Drood, a successful cartoonist with a slightly less successful personal life. All in ll, and especially measured against the sort of creeps who usually inhabit these types of films, he’s a decent enough guy who loves his daughter and is on polite speaking terms with his ex, played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. Also, he has a sweet apartment straight out of a Patrick Nagel painting and his best friend is Adam Ant, who owns the town’s hottest new wave dance club. So all in all life is OK, which is a terrible thing for life to be in a noir film of any decade. And sure enough, during a pleasant stroll one night, CC is shanghai’d by a group of thugs who hustle him into the back of a car and demand to know what he’s done with it or where he put what she gave him, the way pointlessly vague thugs are always demanding things in a pointlessly vague way of people who have no idea what they’re talking about. He manages to escape them, which is good, but after reporting it to the cops (X frontman John Doe and the always welcome Harry Dean Stanton) CC learns that he also happens to be a suspect in a murder case.
The cast and crew of Slam Dance is a veritable who’s who of “better known as” types who are working outside that for which they are better known. Hulce, of course, had recently won an Academy Award for his manic portrayal of Mozart in Amadeus. That was the role that stopped him constantly being thought of as “that guy from Animal House,” but now he was “that guy from Amadeus.” Director Wayne Wang was known mostly for quirky, cultural comedy indy films like Chan is Missing and Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart. Screenwriter Don Opper is better known as the slightly dim-witted hero Charlie in the Critters films. John Doe and Adam Ant were better known as a punk rock front men. But everyone knows what they are doing, and Slam Dance ends up being a very solid entry in the 1980s neon-noir movement, a style of film making that ended up being responsible for a lot of great films, even if I didn’t quite understand that at the time.
At the same time, no one is actually that far out from where you’d expect. Wayne Wang played around with mystery before, and the style he employed in Chan is Missing is evident in part here as well, albeit in sometimes unbalanced concert with the elements of the neo-noir crime film. Wang’s previous were more or less meandering, episodic, and character driven. The plot is a distant second consideration to simply watching these people interact and go about their day. There’s a lot of that in Slam Dance as well, as we hang out with C.C. and his weird friends or just watch our hero drift in somewhat reactive fashion from one strange situation to the next, like when he’s mistaken for a criminal during his first visit to the police station and ends up handcuffed to a chair between two thugs who are trying to kill each other. In certain circumstances, and handled poorly, vignettes like that could come across as padding, or a lack of focus. But in Wang’s hands, and buoyed by Hulce’s performance, they instead to flesh out the world and make more believable this place in which very strange things happen. Most of the people C.C. encounters are less noir grim and bleak and are more just quirky (but not overly so). In the end, it all feels a lot like a Raymond Chandler novel, where it was common for private eye Philip Marlowe to stumble upon so many bizarre situations and outlandish characters that both the reader and the author could easily forget what the actual plot of the book was supposed to be.
Hulce is fantastic as a guy who tries to keep a sense of humor through a series of trying and increasingly bizarre circumstances, until the very real, very deadly nature of the big game into which he’s unwittingly stumbled starts to push him over the edge. He’s not playing Mozart, but he still taps some of the same manic energy during the scenes where he flirts with breaking down or just starts laughing because he can’t believe how screwed he has suddenly become. If I’d seen this as a teen, I would have been sniping endlessly about how he’s not a punk, how he’s a very poor slam dancer, or some other such idiocy. Now I think of him as a pretty believable picture of a slightly older underground artists with a suitably odd best friend and an oddly normal ex-wife (I’m guessing she grew out of it). C.C. is hardly the doomed and self-destructive noir leading man we would have gotten in the 40s or 50s. Nor is he the sweaty, sleazy sort of lead that characterized the 80s neo-noir film. He almost seems like a guy who wandered in from a, entirely different, more lighthearted movie and suddenly found himself surrounded by dead bodies and corrupt cops, with no idea how the hell to deal with it. And that works great, in my opinion, and as with the script’s little asides and offbeat episodes, helps make the film more believable. Steely-eyed southern cops and chain-smoking big city detectives — I like them, but I can’t relate to them. A goofy punk cartoonist who takes nothing seriously only to find himself stuck in a very serious situation — this is a guy I can understand.
His flashback scenes with Virginia Madsen are the most traditional throwbacks to classic film noir. They lack any of the playfulness that infuses the rest of the movie and instead layer on the sense of gravitas and doom one expects from the genre. C.C.’s one dalliance with a woman who acts like a serious adult with serious adult issues comes back to haunt him in a way he could never have anticipated. I never thought that much of Virginia Madsen as a actress in the 1980s, but watching her evolve over the years into quite an accomplished performer (not unlike Kim Basinger or Leslie Cheung) caused me to go back and reassess her. And while not much can help unstiff her limited role in Dune, she was actually all right in both Candyman and The Prophecy. As for Highlander II, well it occurred to me then that I’d never seen much that gave her material that tested her potential as an actress, even if Highlander II tests a lot of other thing. She is necessarily cold and remote in Slam Dance, but her scenes help remind the viewer that, despite Tom Hulce’s trademark laugh and bewildered smile, a lot of people in the story are suffering very depressing fates.
Given Wang’s predilection for quirky venues, it’s not surprising that the supporting cast is very strong. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is substantially more than the ex-wife pulled into her estranged husband’s crazy world so that she can be taken hostage at some point. She’s a fully fleshed out character struggling with her passion (she still loves C.C., irresponsible though he may be) and her reason (she has a kid and a job and doesn’t need to deal with his crazy nonsense). Adam And and John Doe don’t have a lot of screen time, but they’re both good when they’re present. Virginia Madsen is aloof but about as exact a replica of a 1940s femme fatale as you could hope for in the 1980s. And Harry Dean Stanton as a world-weary detective who might be C.C.’s only ally as the murder case gets heavier and heavier is…well, come on. He’s Harry Dean Stanton. The man is an icon, as far as I’m concerned. He was custom-made for noir and crime films be they set in the sweltering south or the neon-drenched big city. Few modern actors can, with such picture-perfect authority, wear a rumpled suit and suspenders and sit, smoking pensively, in a shadowy room lit only by slants of sunlight spilling through window blinds. Harry Dean Stanton is a master at it though. Hell, I’d watch a whole movie of him just doing that.
Don Opper’s script meshes extremely well with Wayne Wang’s directing style. I never would have guessed it from goofy ol’ Charlie from Critters, but I guess it turns out sometimes actors (or screenwriters) are not the characters they portray. Slam Dance wasn’t his first go at writing. Previously, he’d worked on the script for (and starred in) Android, also starring Klaus Kinski, and another sci-fi film, City Limits, which featured Kim Cattrall and Rae Dawn Chong, so I was happy with that one no matter what. He didn’t write much (though he was still working as recently as 2005, when he wrote the script for Syfy’s Painkiller Jane movie/pilot episode). Between Opper and Wang, Slam Dance is a somewhat low key affair that doesn’t wallow in sleaze (a la Brian DePalma) or despair yet still has a dark, sinister edge to it. I think it actually would have fit in well with the better examples of the post Reservoir Dogs crime movies of the 1990s, which were similarly obsessed with offbeat characters and unusual scenarios, and were similarly episodic in their structure.
As for the slam dancing — well, there’s the one scene in Adam Ant’s club, and I actually like it. C.C., overwhelmed a bit by the dangerous edge his previously normal life has taken on, simply loses himself during a concert and bounces around like a desperate, giggling maniac. Setting itself at least partially in the L.A. new wave and art-punk scene is what initially made me turn my nose up at it when I was a moron (these days, I am merely a dullard). Now, I think having a finger on the pulse of the underground — both in terms of plot and setting, but also in terms of Wayne Wang’s cred as an independent film maker (this was still several years before his success with Joy Luck Club would lead to a string of mainstream Hollywood romantic comedies) — is one of the film’s biggest assets, and one of the many things that sets it apart from the rest of the neo(n)-noir pack. Frankly, I’m surprised more people didn’t try punk-noir, as the off-the-beaten-path and insular nature of the sub-culture, as well as the sundry conceptions of it — both accurate and absurd — and its dangerous nature and provocative clothing seemed custom-made for noir cinema. And frankly, Jello Biafra would have made an excellent film noir player.
Even though Slam Dance is not as well remembered or regarded as the heavyweights of neo-noir movies (Body Heat, To Live and Die in L.A., maybe even Blade Runner if you want to cast the net that wide), it was one of the most forward thinking (Hulce’s character even foreshadows the rise of the “endless adolescent” that is usually attributed to the dotcom era), and it ends up being one of my favorites. I can get behind noir’s drive to turn despicable characters into anti-heroes, but it’s nice to see one who is actually, well, nice, if a bit screwy. And I definitely stand by my assertion that more than any other film — even those actually based on his work — this feels like a Raymond Chandler story, especially during the finale when C.C. Drood is stalking around the private estate of a group of rich political figures in the Hollywood Hills. There’s a breeziness tot he film that is, I think, keeping in perfect step with Hulce’s character, a guy who just can’t bring himself to seriously believe how serious the trouble is.
Slam Dance isn’t quite a classic, but I definitely rank it as an unfairly dismissed and forgotten gem. The style of the film will turn some off, and complaints that it’s too rambling or incoherent are not entirely without justification. Your opinion of the movie will depend heavily on how you feel about such an approach. It happened to work with me. I bought into Tom Hulce’s performance and his character, and I was happy to just cruise along with him and feel just as lost at time as he is as the plot remembers from time to time to actually reveal something about its central and increasingly Byzantine murder turned conspiracy. The fact that I like Hulce’s character and know that noir films, be they vintage or neon, rarely end well for their protagonists helps amp up the tension even when the film itself has absent-mindedly wandered off into some vignette or slice-of-life indulgence.
Release Year: 1987 | Country: United States | Starring: Tom Hulce, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Virginia Madsen, Don Opper, Adam Ant, Harry Dean Stanton, John Doe, Millie Perkins, Herta Ware, Judith Barsi, Robert Beltran, Rosalind Chao | Screenplay: Don Opper | Director: Wayne Wang | Cinematography: Amir Mokri | Music: Mitchell Froom