Monday, October 8, 2012

Duchovny Almighty: "Playing God" (1997)

Looking to shake up his Fox Mulder persona, David Duchovny appeared in this over the top actioner that failed at the box office but deserves cult status today.

Dr. Eugene Sands (David Duchovny) is your typical synthetic heroin addicted former surgeon haunted by an operating room death that got his medical license revoked. He cruises seedy Los Angeles nightclubs trying to score dope. In one bar, a patron is shot and Eugene springs into action. Faster than you can say "MacGyver," Eugene saves the man's life with some tape and a coat hanger, all under the watchful eye of Claire (Angelina Jolie).

The next thing Eugene knows, he is meeting Claire's boss and lover- mobster Raymond (Timothy Hutton). Eugene gets $10,000 for his services, and doesn't think he will see Raymond and Claire again, until one of Raymond's henchmen shoots Vladimir (Peter Stormare), a Russian mobster Raymond is having problems with. Eugene is brought back in, and saves Vladimir. Eugene has gained the respect of Raymond, the suspicions of Claire, and the attention of FBI agent Gage (Michael Massee). Gage blackmails Eugene to help the FBI and a big shoot-out almost gets Claire killed. That's when the double crosses and back stabbing really begin.

Actually, there isn't a whole lot to like about "Playing God," and any negative reaction to the film is completely understandable. Our hero is a narcotic addicted surgeon wallowing in self-pity. Claire's character is too obvious, and Raymond is a nutcase. Gage might by a dirty cop, but Raymond's henchmen are funnier than hell. The violence is graphic and gory, leaving nothing to the imagination. The script lacks subtlety, telegraphing major plot points and taking a few too many conveniences. Duchovny's bored narration reminded me of his bored narration on "The Red Shoe Diaries."

On the other hand, Duchovny onscreen is so laid back and at ease, I found myself getting into Eugene's plight. The film does an odd thing as it goes along- it takes itself less and less seriously to the point where there are some light spots in the blood soaked mayhem. While Jolie is too listless until after she is shot, Hutton is a revelation, making me wonder where his second Supporting Actor Oscar nomination was. Raymond is so villainous and despicable he repulses the audience immediately, yet Hutton gives the character so much energy and nuance that Raymond suddenly becomes complicated. Duchovny gets more laughs here than in "Evolution," which isn't hard to do if you have seen "Evolution." Even Massee scores as Gage in another dirty cop role that has been done.

Wilson really keeps the direction light and weird (the hotel conversation shot through the glass wall), and the music and song score ratchet the pace up. Although it came out many years before Hollywood celebrities began collecting children from foreign lands for publicity's sake, having Hutton tell Jolie to calm down when meeting with Far East mobsters by pretending "you're gonna adopt a Chinese baby" had me howling. Eugene's house call to a bus is another stand out scene.

No, "Playing God" is not a new classic or the best of the 1990's. Thankfully, the film makers realized what they had in time to say "screw it, let's give the audience what they want." (* * * *) out of five stars.