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HIT ME(director: Steven Shainberg; screenwriters: Denis Johnson/from a story “A Swell-Looking Babe” by Jim Thompson; cinematographer: Mark J. Gordon; editor: Donn Aron; music: Peter Manning Robinson; cast: Elias Koteas (Sonny), Laure Marsac (Monique), Jay Leggett (Leroy), Philip Baker Hall (Lenny Ish), Bruce Ramsay (Del), Kevin J. O’Connor (Cougar), J.C. Quinn (Bascomb), Haing S. Ngor (Billy), Arthur Senzy (Arthur Senzy), Jack Conley (Mr. Ish’s Bodyguard), William H. Macy (Cop); Runtime: 128; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Gregory Goodman/ Steven Shainberg; Castle Hill Productions; 1996)
“The story works best as a spoiler pouring ice water over those who think they can rise above their stations in life.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The film noir opens with a quote from Thoreau “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” That describes Sonny Rose (Elias Koteas), a hard luck night bellhop at the deteriorating two-star Hotel Stillwell in Tacoma, Washington. It was once a three-star hotel. The 31-year-old has been working 8 years in a dead-end job he can’t escape from, and seems to be barely able to even hold on to this job. He earns extra cash by doing petty crimes, such as stealing the hotel’s vodka and VCRs or by procuring sex for certain hotel guests. His future looks bleak. In his drab apartment, the bachelor is taking care of his helpless brother Leroy (Leggett), who is obese and mentally impaired. A social worker calls to threaten to take Leroy to foster care unless conditions improve at home.

Things pick up a bit for Sonny when a sexy hotel guest, Monique (Marsac), slashes her wrists and he saves her. Sonny is attracted to the pretty redhead, who dreams of going to Paris. Monique claims to be from Paris and was a dancer in Seattle until the music stopped. She lures Sonny into her room and makes love with him on the floor, but afterwards screams rape. A former bellhop at the hotel, Del (Ramsay), rescues Sonny from that situation, but says Monique wants $5,000 to not go to the police. Del is now working for a big-time Las Vegas gambler Lenny Ish (Philip Baker Hall), and brags that he’s in the money. Del proposes that Sonny help steal the money deposited in the hotel safe which was intended as stakes for a poker game organized by Ish. Sonny is to receive a ten percent cut, which amounts to $70,000, for providing the keys to the safe. He’ll also be able to pay Monique her hush money.

The film is packed with vexing noir characters — not just the struggling Koteas and the vulnerable hooker Marsac, but the brutish hotel security chief Cougar (O’Connor) and Bascomb (Quinn) and Billy (Ngor), the bland night staff at the front desk of the Stillwell.

But the philosophical Ish (Philip Baker Hall), who likes to get high on cocaine and gaze through a telescope at the stars, is the chilling sophisticated class act in this creepy yellowish pastel decorated hotel. Ish in a quiet menacing way admonishes the poor bellhop to know his place and gives him a quote from Mother Theresa: “In order to receive a little humility, it takes a lot of humiliation.” Del also has a one-liner that gets to the bellhop: “Don’t be sucked in by littleness.”

Sonny’s American Dream and hope for escape never materializes as he gets caught up in the robbery violence and the viewer can’t help but stop caring about him. The film can’t get past the dark mood it sets, and leaves the story unresolved with moral issues. It was never sure whether to go for a black comedy, an intense character study, or a hard-edged noir tale. It settles for none of the above, and just meanders along on mood alone and fails to push the absurd doom tale over any new boundaries. The story works best as a spoiler pouring ice water over those who think they can rise above their stations in life. The winners are the cynics, the losers are those who always lose.

This pointed look at American decadence is a film noir based on a book by Jim Thompson that was adapted by screenwriter Denis Johnson. It was crisply directed by Steven Shainberg (“Secretary“), who gets absolutely right the noir mood and the sleaze of the characters. It’s not a cheerful film that aims to please. It cuts into a dark world of double-crosses and cunning operators who are too ruthless a match for small-time dreamers without the inner will power to go all the way and close the deal. The title is borrowed from a blackjack term, and serves as a metaphor for the players taking a long-shot against the house.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”