Saturday, June 8, 2013

#158: Perdita Durango aka Dance with the Devil (Alex de la Iglesia, 1997)

I had a smile on my face before I even pushed play on the Perdita Durango DVD (dully retitled Dance with the Devil for the American market). That smile was an involuntary, automatic reaction caused by previous memories of the people behind and in front of the camera. Directed and co-written by the almost too entertaining Spanish madman Alex de la Iglesia (The Day of the Beast, The Last Circus), co-written and based on the novel by surrealist pulp-noir writer Barry Gifford, who collaborated with David Lynch on two underrated films (Wild at Heart, Lost Highway) and starring Javier Bardem, Rosie Perez, James Gandolfini, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Don Stroud, and Alex Cox, Perdita Durango would have to be a complete fiasco to keep me from enjoying myself. Though not without some minor flaws, it's a hell of a long way from a fiasco.
A pulpy, cartoony mishmash of genres, Perdita Durango manages to incorporate elements of spaghetti westerns, lovers on the run, road movies, comedies, action, crime thrillers, horror, romance, and noir. Quentin Tarantino and cast member Alex Cox may be the closest reference points of directors working in a similar key, but Iglesia is his own man. He's not as overtly referential or as pleased with his dialogue as Tarantino can be, and he's less political and more violent than Cox, but he shares their visual skills and energy and knows how to blend genres without creating a disjointed or soupy mess. He and Gifford make a good team.
Rosie Perez plays the title character (Isabella Rossellini played the same character in Wild at Heart, though her approach was worlds apart from Perez's) in her patented no-bullshit tough-girl manner. Some people I know find Ms. Perez insufferable, but I've always enjoyed watching her and not just because I have a crush on her. She meets the wild, charismatic outlaw Romeo Dolorosa (Javier Bardem), who has a slight case of demonic possession. He's spent the day robbing a bank, double-crossing his bank robbing partner, and conducting a Santeria ritual over the corpse he's stolen earlier that day. (Gifford and Iglesia play fast and loose with the actual practices of Santeria.) His right-hand man in the occult rituals is Adolfo (Screamin' Jay Hawkins). He hits on Perdita, they exchange insults and barbs, and she decides to join him. Soon, they're having very intense sex and planning a human sacrifice.
Romeo soon runs into his cousin, Reggie San Pedro (played by Bardem's brother Carlos Bardem), who tells him his associate, crime boss Santos (Don Stroud), has some work for him. Santos gives Bardem $10,000 and instructions to deliver some frozen embryos to Las Vegas, where he will receive an additional $10,000 upon completion of the mission. Perdita and Romeo kidnap a couple of naive milquetoast teenagers out on a date, Duane (Harley Cross) and Estelle (Aimee Graham, Heather's younger sister), for their sacrifice. Unbeknownst to Romeo and Perdita, they're being followed by a federal agent, Willie "Woody" Dumas (James Gandolfini), who is later joined by a few more agents, including Doyle (Alex Cox). Soon, shit gets complicated and body counts and explosions pile up as our protagonists travel through Mexico, Texas, Arizona, and Nevada. And that's primarily just the setup. (By the way, I love Gifford's names for his characters.)
Despite the film's length of just over two hours, Iglesia keeps everything moving. It's hard to get bored watching an Iglesia film. Something crazy, funny, disturbing, or interesting is almost always happening, sometimes at once. The look of the film is gorgeous, too. Iglesia's cinematographer Flavio Martinez Labiano gets a sun-baked golden crispness of image that calls to mind spaghetti westerns and Mexican and Southwestern American summers. (One of Labiano's first jobs was as camera operator on the Vanilla Ice movie, Cool as Ice. That has nothing to do with this review, but I had to mention it.) Everyone in the cast is so fun to watch, with Gandolfini, Stroud, and Bardem especially bringing the ruckus. Bardem, wearing one of the most bizarre mullets in cinema history (he is truly a man unafraid of an unflattering hairstyle), nails a character that has to be ridiculous and silly at certain moments and scary as fuck in others.
Some viewers may have trouble with the film's detached approach to violence, and we're expected to enjoy characters who murder, rape, kidnap, and beat people while not feeling much for the victims. This is some dark territory, but the film is clearly an alternate movie fantasy world that bears little resemblance to our own, so it didn't bother me. In fact, a running gag about characters being hit by cars had me laughing throughout. Wild at Heart took a lot of heat for its similar tone, but I feel Gifford is just putting a modern spin on the classic noir template, filtered through 40 additional years of both underground and mainstream pop culture. These are darkly funny, amoral worlds that greatly appeal to me in a cathartic, amusement park ride kind of way. If you're anything like me, you'll probably enjoy the trip.

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