Maverick filmmaker Abel Ferrara’s latest effort is a well-made and fiercely well-performed erotic drama that perversely fails to deliver on the thriller aspects promised in the early stages. Centered on a sock performance from foxy Italo actress Asia Argento, the film, which focuses on industrial espionage and corporate skullduggery, is unlikely to find new fans for the wayward Ferrara, though his core of supporters around the world — which amounts to a considerable number in such territories as France and Italy, where his work is highly regarded — will be keen to see what he’s wrought from William Gibson’s short story.
Deemed by many the father of cyberpunk, Gibson (author of the novel “Neuromancer”) included “New Rose Hotel” in an anthology titled “Burning Chrome.” Similar to Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers,” story consists of a monologue as a man, expecting to be murdered, waits at the titular hotel and recalls the events that led up to this moment.
Ferrara retains the essence of the original material, while rejecting the flashback structure altogether. Pic starts off with mysterious corporate raider Fox (Christopher Walken), together with his deputy, X (Willem Dafoe), plotting to lure Hiroshi (Yoshitaka Amano), a scientific genius, away from the company that employs him. The duo is working on behalf of a rival corporation that wants Hiroshi’s services so much that it’s willing to pay Fox $ 100 million if he succeeds.
Walker has some tasty dialogue in these early scenes. Noting that global corporations control the world (“Governments are just toll-keepers on the highway of commerce”), he says an undeclared war is waging — a war in which “suits slaughter one another like mad dogs.” It’s against this background of high-stakes industrial espionage that the film unfolds.
Fox’s plan is simple enough. He offers slinky chanteuse and part-time prostitute Sandii (Argento) $ 1 million if she’ll seduce Hiroshi away from the company he works for and, into the bargain, away from his wife and family. She agrees, and goes into training with X, ostensibly to learn as much as possible about her target. The training develops into some erotic goings-on and a passionate affair.
At the moment Sandii leaves on her assignment, Ferrara abruptly abandons the thriller aspects of the plot. We are shown no scenes involving Sandii and Hiroshi; we only hear, through dialogue, that she succeeded — and then betrayed her employers. In a sense, the film is interactive: Audiences are encouraged to dream up any scenario they want. In any event, Fox and X now expect to be killed themselves, punishment for not fulfilling their side of the contract.
Having perversely subverted audience expectations, Ferrara, instead of proceeding with the narrative, repeats and recycles numerous scenes from the first part of the film, sometimes with minor variations. This device is likely to leave all but diehard Ferrara fans deeply frustrated, though as usual, the edge the director gives the seemingly improvised material is intriguing and sometimes exciting.
For audiences bewildered by all of this, there’s some compensation in the performances. As usual, Walken gives an electric portrayal. As the scheming Fox, slightly crippled with a bad back, he walks with the aid of a cane and cuts a formidable, dangerous figure in his white outfits. Dafoe delivers strongly, too, as his besotted deputy.
But the discovery here is Argento, daughter of Italian horror film director Dario Argento, previously seen by Yank audiences in a supporting role in “Queen Margot.” Here, she positively lights up the screen with an electric, sensual, funny performance that has star potential written all over it. She speaks with a light Italian accent, and her English is easily understandable.
Pic’s soundtrack consists of the first composed score of hip-hopper Schoolly D., a surprisingly muted music track that aptly accompanies the moody images and foreshortened plotting. Visually, pic is deliberately murky in some sequences, though most of it is pristinely photographed. It has a dreamy quality that places it somewhere beyond noir and into the realm of non-high-tech science fiction.
Print screened at Venice contained no end credits; pic was timed to the end of the playout music, which was heard over a blank screen. Opening credits, which are hard to decipher at times, are written in three languages — English, German and Japanese.