Mona Lisa (Neil Jordan, 1986)
Working class UK gangster George (Bob Hoskins), just out from a 7 year prison sentence, after a hilariously catastrophic attempted reunion with wife and daughter (hilarious for us, catastrophic for him, as his hopes, along with the bouquet of flowers he brought, are thrown into his face, leading to him wildly flinging about the garbage cans out into the street, while daring the watching bemused neighbors to do something about it), ends up hired by his former boss (Michael Caine) as a driver and bodyguard for Simone (Cathy Tyson), a high class call girl. No surprise (I mean, we’ve all seen enough movies), the initial dislike and tensions between them begin to fade and a mutual fondness grows… to the point of the now-smitten George agreeing to help the desperate beauty, even if it means pitting himself dangerously against his own boss.
There’s prostitute-riddled streets and seedy sex shops (though curiously presented from a somewhat prurient distance, with Jordan seemingly determined to keep his production classy and not show too much, which I’m not saying is a bad thing -– if pre-Code classic noir taught us anything -– other than never a trust a beautiful woman no matter how much she appears to be falling in love with ya -– is that it’s a mistake to believe a film has to openly wallow in the perversions to be evocative… and, anyway, we’ve all seen enough post-Hayes Code films taking place amongst the sex trade underworld to have seen our share).
There’s the pugnacious Hoskins, exploding onto the cinematic scene as a force to be reckoned with, a menacing character actor capable of projecting the potential for hair-trigger violence, yes, but also having the creative flexibility –- the thing that elevated him to the big leagues — to project an underlying vulnerability and likability (for a quick comparison, take a gander at Brit actor Vinnie Jones, a much more common cinematically menacing figure, perfectly legit as a character actor, but one who was never gonna ascend beyond that). For instance, the scene where George and his charge are attacked by a truly frightening knife-wielding pimp on an elevator is brilliantly handled by Hoskins, with the actor helping the moment really come alive by willingly showing his character as frightened as the girl he’s in charge of protecting.
Cathy Tyson brings the joy of not just her acting, initially carrying her character with a stubborn aura of pride to hide the damage done, with her emotionally-unreadable visage slowly breaking down as she seemingly trusts more and more in George (be careful, George! This is a neo-noir after all… I mean, you’re a gangster… I mean, damn, have you ever heard the term femme fatale before??), but also one of the most stunning faces to grace a film of this neo-variety. With George constantly forced to stare back at that light-chocolate, perfectly symmetrical image of desire in his rear-view window while on the job, it would be a wonder if he hadn’t have fallen in love.
Michael Caine, as George’s crime boss, operating at the higher end of society, a slimeball who the poor working-class shlep took the fall for that led to his prison sentence, and was never appreciated for, exudes so much sleaze — I really have no idea quite how he achieved it, but man is it palpable -– it becomes one of the elements that, within the confines of the harsh compartmentalized fantasy that is neo-noir, is just another wonderfully delicious color on the canvas.
While I’ve always had a love for the formalism of the traditional noir, in all its tough glory and moody view of the world, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown equally as fond of its more modern-minded offspring, the neo-noir, with most of my appreciation coming from witnessing the craftsmanship on display; that is, taking the enjoyable baggage that comes as part of the genre and freshening it up just enough, sometimes just through performance, into something if not necessarily transformative (unless you’re David Lynch… I’m sorry, Mr Rest-of-the-World’s-Filmmakers, but you’ll likely have to go somewhere else to create something truly cinematically ground-breaking) at the very least well-crafted, usually tight, gritty… and often poignant.
And Mona Lisa is just that kind of wonderful slice of Brit crime neo-noir; a bit sleazy, street tough and yet, down deep, poetic. Yeah, yeah, it’s ultimately male-centric, revolving around the redemption of our hero through betrayal by femme fatale, but, too bad, it’s neo-noir. You don’t like it, go somewhere else (and to be fair, in this case, at least the usual just destruction of the femme fatale isn’t inevitable, as the film leaves the fate of Tyson’s call girl ambiguous, with even the possibility of her own redemption possible, in the form of the female love she had manipulated George to help her find).
Maybe it’s just me (probably is), but I feel I’ve never been quite as attracted to the films of Neil Jordan as I should be (for instance, I feel like everything points to me having loved his overtly-expressionistic gothic monstrous fairy tale The Company of Wolves, but somehow, when I saw it in the theaters back in 1984… I just didn’t fall under its spell like so many respected peers did). It’s all due for a revisit. Who knows, maybe I can convince my nameless European festival head bestie to invite him as a Guest of Honor. What the hell, worth a shot.