Do you know who’s underrated? Billy Zane. I’ve already gushed about him in my DEMON KNIGHT piece, and I will continue now. Zane is one of those actors who can be instantly likable, even when playing a force of evil bent on destroying humanity. All he has to do is flash that disarming “aw shucks” smile of his and you just want to hang out with the guy. It’s a pity that most of the world knows him from his biggest role, the rich, possessive, joyless villain from TITANIC, a character completely devoid of Zane’s natural charisma. Fortunately, his charm is on full display in 1991’s darkly comic loser love story, BLOOD AND CONCRETE.
Small time crook Joey Turks (Billy Zane) is having another in a long line of bad days. First, his foul mouthed dirtbag associate, Mort (Billy Bastiani), stiffs him on his last job. Then he gets stabbed when Mort catches him stealing his TV. His luck changes when he passes out on Mona (Jennifer Beals), a lovelorn, drug addicted musician who was trying to kill herself in a cemetery. Mona takes Joey back to her apartment, patching him up and clumsily seducing him. Their budding romance gets complicated when Mort turns up dead, minus his stash of a hot new designer drug, Libido. Joey gets squeezed between Spuntz (Nicholas Worth), a bargain basement crime kingpin who thinks he has the stash, and washed up homicide detective Hank Dick (Darren McGavin), who’s using Joey to get to Spuntz. All Joey wants to do is run off with his new girl, but first he will have to track down the drugs, keep out of jail, avoid Spuntz’s psychotic hustler enforcer Bart, (Mark Pellegrino), deal with Mona’s sleazebag ex-boyfriend, Lance (James Le Gros), and stay out of the sights of the real killer. Just another day in L.A.
Billy Zane’s Joey Turks is a terrible criminal. As in, he is terrible at being a criminal, not that he is a criminal who inspires terror. Mostly he inspires getting beaten up. The first shot of the movie has him very awkwardly stepping out of the window of a house carrying a TV and then coming face to face with the guy he’s trying to rip-off. He is a car thief who only steals the piece of shit kind of cars that people try to have stolen in the first place. He keeps all his belongings stored in a bus station locker, and has to swipe three bucks from a nice old lady’s purse when he can’t afford to get them out. Danny Ocean, his is not.
He’s a bit like Michael Moriarty’s sad sack crook in Q. The difference here is that it’s not just Joey that is bad at his job. Everyone in the entire film is embarrassingly incompetent at their chosen profession. Joey is just the only one who is aware of that fact.
A good example of this lack of self-reflection is disgraced homicide detective Hank Dick. Imagine if Darren McGavin’s short sighted, impulsive dad from A CHRISTMAS STORY was divorced, full of bitterness, and had a gun. That is Hank Dick. He is months away from retirement with absolutely nothing to show for it. The younger detectives openly mock his famously inaccurate intuition and long string of unsolved cases. When he learns that Spuntz is involved in Joey’s troubles, Hank sees his chance to end his career on a high note, or at least a note that doesn’t sound like utter failure. Except instead of doing actual police work, Hank just bullies Joey into bringing Spuntz to him.
McGavin imbues Hank with a blind determination that is completely disconnected from reality. In one scene, while Hank is driving through L.A., he stares down an increasingly agitated Joey sitting in the passenger seat for what seems like thirty seconds before stating, “I’ve got my eye on you, son.” It’s not a Police Squad style bit of parody, it’s simply that Hank does not give a shit. He would rather run over a pedestrian than ruin the moment. The humor comes from Joey, who clearly does give a shit, but can only squirm and plead with the old man until he’s made his point.
It is a testament to how bad Hank is at being a detective that his arch nemesis is Spuntz, a third tier crime boss with delusions of grandeur. Nicholas Worth is a huge guy, known for playing violent, slow witted brutes like in DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE and SWAMP THING. As a nice change of pace, Spuntz is a refined, cultured man. He speaks eloquently about the opera and the finer things in life. He is also completely full of shit. Everything is for show, whether it’s staging an elegant feast in a house he clearly broke into, or belting out the score of Otello on a cheap boombox.
Spuntz’s criminal empire seems to consist solely of Bart, his muscle bound boytoy that he took off —and constantly threatens to put back on—the streets. He tries to project an air of calm authority, but it is hard for him to keep his cool when all his money is tied up in the lost shipment of Libido. Or when he is constantly being ridiculed by Bart. Just like Hank Dick, he does not get the respect he thinks he deserves, but it is hard to do when he is trying to intimidate Joey while dressed in a Speedo, or when Bart busts in on him while on the toilet. Dignity is the one thing in this movie nobody can afford.
Mark Pellegrino’s gay hustler can be a bit much, with his love of electropop and skimpy muscle shirts, and his performance quickly becomes so over the top extreme that is impossible to take him seriously as a human being. He’s a walking, talking, dancing manifestation of pure id. The only thing on his mind is fucking and fighting. That and giving Spuntz shit when he gets too self-aggrandizing. He also has a serious Libido habit, popping the addictive aphrodisiacs like they were Tic Tacs. The more he takes, the more amorphous his sexuality becomes, meaning he is a threat to either gender (possibly different species, too). Luckily, Pellegrino plays him as such a buffoon that we know there is no danger of this wandering into SAVAGE STREETS territory. Not that Joey can appreciate this when Bart is chasing him around a dinner table with his pants around his ankles.
There is a nice running gag where Joey tries to reason with Bart, only to wind up smashing him over the head with something. Bart falls for it every time, and collects an ever growing collection of bruises and cuts as the movie goes on.
The only decent thing Joey has going for him is Mona. Her act of kindness (keeping him from bleeding to death) and act of passion (chemically motivated or not) sets Joey firmly in her orbit. He doesn’t want her to get involved with his crazy danger, but he doesn’t what to stay away, either.
Mona’s life isn't all sunshine and puppies, either. She has a dead end job (“Envelopes, I stuff ‘em, I lick ‘em, I send ‘em”), a dead beat ex always sniffing around, and a Libido habit. Plus, she has crazy mood swings, and there is that thing about her trying to kill herself. Despite all this, or maybe because of it, Mona and Joey have undeniable chemistry. They can be both super sexy and charmingly tender together, if they can ever get their collective shit together long enough to enjoy it.
Mona has one up on Joey, because there is something she is legitimately good at, singing. She takes Joey to see her band at a hole-in-the-wall bar. As to be expected from this kind of movie, her band a very quirky, eclectic ensemble, with an accordionist, cello player, guitarist, and Mona rocking a thrift store gypsy look. Surprisingly, the movie lets the entire performance play without interruption, which is nice, because her song, “One In a Million”, is fucking fantastic. It is cool, eccentric, catchy, and beautifully sung by Beals herself. It has sort of a smoky, sexy They Might Be Giants aesthetic. The performance isn’t just padding, it moves the story along. We see Joey watching quietly in the crowd, becoming more and more captivated with this woman. Zane’s expression honestly captures that I’ve-really-found-something-special realization. Joey liked her before, but this is the point where he falls hard for her.
This gives Joey more than his own hide to think of as he navigates the L.A. side streets full of lowlifes and weirdos. Not that that makes it any easier for him. Joey is the kind of guy much more comfortable with talking his way out of situations than taking violent measures. Ideally, he would be able to pull a YOJIMBO and play the different sides coming down on him against each other. Unfortunately, they are too dumb, arrogant, or obsessed to listen, and it is all Joey can do to keep one step ahead of being flattened. The one voice of sanity in this mess belongs to his former partner in crime turned yuppie philosopher, Sammy (Harry Shearer, playing a sort of Zen Ned Flanders). He only gives Joey cryptic advice that is probably just bullshit, but at least he offers Joey a moment to catch his breath and think. Ultimately, that is just what Joey needs to solve the mystery. That's when things really go off the rails.
This movie is so incredibly ‘90s that it’s a shock it was only made in the very beginning of the decade (the copyright is 1990). A lot of it has to do with the setting. L.A. practically created the ‘90s. It was rolling in the '90s a few years ahead of the calendar. The movie hits on the eclectic style of clothes, the retro lounge chic, the absurdity, and the indie pacing of humor that all became big in the ‘90s. There is even a bona fide L.A. hipster (Steve Freedman), in his horn-rimmed glasses and with no real understanding of the profound things he is constantly babbling about. He rescues Joey from being plugged by Bart and they hide out in a Chinese restaurant, because he figures a person trying to kill you would never expect you to stop for a bite to eat. Like all hipsters, he is wrong. He has just long enough to express how alive he feels before ending up face down in his plate of moo goo gai pan. That pretty much sums up the '90s right there.
I don’t know where this little movie came from. It came out too early to be part of the indie boom. I don’t remember it being in the theater, but it is more slickly produced than you would expect from a Direct to Video cheapie. I'd never heard of the director, Jeffrey Reiner, before, but that is not surprising since this was his first film (he's most famous now for television, a reoccurring theme with the kinds of movies I like). The cast, while superb, are low key enough to fly under the radar. I’m not even sure if I picked it up at the video store or caught it on cable. One day it was just there. That is fine by me, because I love this dark tale of a city full of losers.
While still underrated, Billy Zane certainly keeps himself busy. He's been making four or five films a year for decades now, including eight due out for this year alone. Trouble is, I haven't heard of 99% of them. That doesn't bode well. On the other hand, no one has heard of this one and it's a fucking gem. Maybe I can find a few more in his 700 or so other movies. If not, well, he's still underrated in my book.