Director Brian de Palma is all about the look and the mood and paying tribute to the classic old movies he loves. He loves them so much he crawls inside them. He imitates them like an art student sitting in front of an old master at a museum, matching every brushstroke. If his characters capture the audience’s interest or the story makes sense, it’s almost an afterthought or happenstance. This time he takes a famous real-life unsolved murder and makes it a starting point for a murky story of corruption, betrayal, and duality.
One boxer is called fire and one is called ice. One’s name suggests black: Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and one’s suggests white: Leland “Lee” Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart).
But they have a lot in common. Both leave the fight game and become cops. First assigned to fight each other as a publicity stunt, they become partners, and then friends. And they have one more very important thing in common. Bucky likes Lee’s girl Kay (Scarlett Johansson) very much.
Kay’s hair is blonde and her clothes are, too, soft white sweaters and champagne satin peignoir and step-ins. She is the only one who calls Bleichert “Dwight.” She lets him know she is interested, but he is loyal to his friend and partner.
Bleichert is also drawn to a brunette who dresses in black, a spoiled rich girl named Madeleine Linscott (Hillary Swank). She may know something about the shocking murder and mutilation of an aspiring starlet named Elizabeth Scott (Mia Kirshner), another dark-haired woman who loved black.
By the time all of this gets sorted out, the fire and ice cops and the blonde and brunette women will come into contact with every imagineable kind of degredation and corruption and more lives will be destroyed. It’s plenty stylish, with its dusty golden sepia tones, fedoras, and cigarette holders. In a nightclub, k.d. laing croons in a tux. Even the blood splatter and the falling bodies have a twisted elegance. And there are assorted references to film canon masterpieces, especially The Big Sleep, with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
But De Plama losses control of the tone as the story and its characters spin wildly over the top. As we see the dead girl in bits of screen test footage, there is a greater and greater gulf between her natural, heart-breaking performance and the shrill and screechy rest of the film.
Parents should know that this movie has very mature material in every category. There is very graphic and intense violence. Characters injured, mutilated, and killed in brutal boxing match, shoot-outs, knives, punching, and falling. Characters use very strong language, including ethnic slurs. The film includes explicit sexual references and situations, gay and straight, including pornography, references to prostitution, and implied incest.
Families who see this movie should talk about the meaning of the many dualities it includes and how this contemporary re-telling draws on the tropes and conventions of the movies of its era.
Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy DePlama’s The Untouchables and the films that inspired this one, including The Big Sleep, The Blue Dahlia, Chinatown, L.A. Confidential, or True Confessions, also inspired by the Black Dahlia murder. Those who are interested in the story might like to read the book or find out more about the real-life Black Dahlia murder that inspired it. There are a number of books and websites that purport to solve the murder, but no one really knows for sure.