"Honey," Ellen Burstyn's character in The Last Picture Show remarks to her daughter, "everything gets old if you do it often enough." The specific activity she had in mind was sex, but the maxim applies at least as appropriately to genre conventions in movies, which even the casual moviegoer can predict: the mistaken identities and coincidence in farces; the star-crossed lovers and their eventual reconciliations in romances; the deceitful blondes, double-crosses, and morally compromised heroes in noir detective films.
Eight Millimeter is a noir detective film, and it has all of the usual suspects, except for the deceitful blonde. There's only one blonde, and she's no femme fatale; in fact, there are no femme fatales of any coloration. The new Joel Schumacher thriller depicts a horribly soiled, tawdry, completely male world, where women can be victim, moral guidepost, or both.
Nicolas Cage stars as private eye Tom Welles, an updated, domesticated version of those slightly dim private eyes from the old days who didn't realize how far in over their heads they had gotten until it was too late. (They were generally supporting characters who didn't make it to the last reel alive.) He's a desk jockey, a nice middle-class guy trying to make ends meet to support his wife (Catherine Keener) and child.
When he's called to the home of Mrs. Christian (Myra Carter), one of the richest people in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, he senses his big break. Mrs. Christian wants him to investigate a snuff film belonging to her late husband, a pillar of the community. Was the film real or faked? Who is the poor girl in it? And is she still alive? Most of all, who were the monsters who made it?
Not surprisingly, Welles' inquiries lead him to that cesspool of moral depravity--Hollywood. He hooks up with Max (Joaquin Phoenix), a porn-store clerk who has connections in the hardcore underground. (Phoenix's performance is the best thing in the movie.) Together they work their way closer and closer to the perpetrators, and the corruption and stench of the scene they're in inevitably begins to corrupt Tom, bringing out those innate parts of himself that are the seeds of the same sort of amorality that drives the bad guys.
All this is fine in theory. In fact, at times, the script by Andrew Kevin Walker, who also wrote Seven, seems theory-driven, as though it were written ground-up from an academic analysis of film noir. But haven't we seen this before...a lot?
In general, the point of rehashing familiar genre material is either to view it from a new angle or to update it or, at a minimum, to do it really, really well. Chinatown--to pick the most obvious example--did all three. Eight Millimeter, unfortunately, does none of the above. Its major source is Paul Schrader's 1979 Hardcore. Now, nobody, not even Schrader, would dispute that Hardcore itself was derivative: The film makes blatant internal acknowledgement of its debt to John Ford's The Searchers, which Schrader cleverly moved from the Old West to contemporary Los Angeles. While nobody, least of all Schrader, would claim that it was a better version of the Ford film, its changed elements--both the updating and the specific moral universe of the protagonist--made it vastly different.
Would that Schumacher and Walker had brought as much new to the story as Schrader. But, no, all we get is a repeat: the same odyssey through the sleaziest sewers of American culture under the guidance of a wisecracking denizen. (Actually, Max is a conflation of Peter Boyle's detective and Season Hubley's prostitute--both knowing and innocent.) Nearly everything in Eight Millimeter was done 20 years earlier, and several times more interestingly, in Hardcore.
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To compare the two is to see all the worst results of Hollywood slickness: Hardcore was technically cruder and not as fast-moving, but it had the feeling of genuine moral conflict and a subtler view of its characters. In comparison, Eight Millimeter feels as though it were written on assignment, competently assembled as a project, with boilerplate tropes about good and evil tossed in with the boilerplate dialogue, characters, and plot twists.
Even as fluff, as a straight-out thrill machine, Eight Millimeter is only so-so. Some issues--Tom's failure to keep in touch with his wife, for instance--are unclear on a plot level. The fight and chase scenes are uninspired: When in doubt, the filmmakers make someone drop a gun, which will then be struggled over. (Once per movie is the limit on that gag, guys.) And Schumacher dissipates much of the film's narrative energy by having the action whip back and forth between the East and West coasts. Every time Cage hops on a plane--and thus out of immediate danger--all the suspense evaporates.
Worst of all, while no subject matter should be off-limits, there is a decided difference between exploring the most sensational aspects of human depravity and simply plugging the subject in as another interchangeable element in a slick thrill machine.
Directed by Joel Schumacher. Written by Andrew Kevin Walker. With Nicholas Cage, Joaquin Phoenix, James Gandolfini, Peter Stormare, and Catherine Keener. Now playing.