Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Dirty Nineties

Here's a short essay I posted to The Next Level, a gaming and pop culture discussion board, about an interesting point in film history:

The early '90s was kind of a depressing time. Crime was skyrocketing, the economy was slow, an unpopular Bush was president and the Japanese were eating our lunch. The prosperity of the mid-to-late '90s, the rapid eclipse of the Japanese economy, and the sharp reduction in crime that followed soon made us forget this gloomy era. But the movies made during this period bring those memories back.

Some of them are comedies, some are typical big-budget action flicks, and some of them defy easy genre categorization. But they all share a particular aesthetic I like to call "dirty '90s": dark, neon-lit streets, steamy back alleys, morally conflicted protagonists, and an overarching pessimistic world view.

Here's a preliminary list of movies I came up with. Feel free to supplement this list.

The Last Boy Scout: One of the great, overlooked action flicks of the nineties. This movie has an unforgettable opening scene: a pair of football teams square off in a miserable, muddy arena, rain pouring down in sheets. The quarterback hands the ball to a crazed-looking running back. The running back heads for the end zone and then, just before the opposing linemen bring him down, he pulls out a pistol and shoots three of them dead. Then he turns the pistol on himself and pulls the trigger. Wow! The film itself is a darkly humorous noir thriller about corrupt football teams, politicians, and a down-and-out former Secret Service agent (Bruce Willis, the eponymous hero) and co-stars Damon Wayans and Halle Barry's naked breasts. Tony Scott's direction really shows the influence of his brother Ridley's Blade Runner, a film that profoundly influences the other films on this list.

The Fisher King: I could write for pages and pages about this movie (in fact, I already have, way back in my undergraduate thesis), but this Terry Gilliam film takes the Dirty Nineties elements and fashions them into a peculiar comedic drama. Jeff Bridges plays a New York shock jock/asshole whose outrageous radio act urges a listener to go on a murderous rampage. One year later, wracked with guilt, he bumps into a former medieval history professor -- now living as a bum -- whose wife was murdered by the aforementioned psycho. Together the two embark on a search for the Holy Grail.

Black Rain: Mostly a by-the-numbers action/noir picture notable for its oustanding visual style, again the product of Ridley Scott. Michael Douglas is the hard-boiled, fish out of water American detective in Tokyo who resolves to avenge his partner's murder.

Predator 2: Not as good as the original, but takes the concept in an entirely new direction. P2 imagines a near-future totally dominated by criminal street gangs. Police roll around town in armored minivans. A Jamaican drug overlord is the unofficial king of Los Angeles. What better place for the Predator to test his hunting skills? Danny Glover and a not-quite-batshit-insane Gary Busey co-star.

Demolition Man: Shares the urban dystopia backstory of Predator 2 but then runs a play-action fake: it's a 1984-style action-comedy picture! After mass murderer Wesley Snipes is released from his cryoprison into the Los Angeles of the future, rogue cop Sly Stallone is thawed out and ordered to catch him. Great idea marred by some horrific product placement and the casting of Stallone in the lead role. Snipes is the best thing in this movie. Oh and Dennis Leary is good too.

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