- Rated R
- Buy the Blu-ray
Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
ong before Irish director Neil Jordan made popular movies (“Interview with the Vampire”), or important movies (“Michael Collins”), or movies that were both (“The Crying Game”), he made some little movies that not many people saw. In recent years, he’s again returned to making little movies that not many people see, and yet there’s a difference between what he’s doing now, and what he was doing way back then; there often is with directors of his caliber. You can feel the hunger and the desire to impress or to say something worthwhile in the earlier works, and you don’t always get that vibe in the newer stuff. “Mona Lisa” is such a film.
It may not have the budget of “In Dreams” or the uniqueness of “The Butcher Boy,” and yet it’s got an immense amount of heart and a self-assuredness that makes it well worth carving out some time for. Apparently, someone in Hollywood felt much the same, as there’s a remake in the works, currently slated to star Mickey Rourke and Eva Greene, and it will be directed by Larry Clark ("Kids," "Another Day in Paradise").
It’d be all too easy to launch into a rant about how pointless it seems to remake this film, but I wouldn’t be saying anything that hasn’t been said a hundred times before about a hundred different remakes. Instead, I’d much rather write about Jordan’s film, which was something of a video staple for me back in the 90s, and yet it’s been over a decade since I last partook in its world. Viewing it again was a lot like spending time with an old, dear friend that you haven’t seen in ages.
George (Bob Hoskins) is a small time crook who’s just been released from prison after doing a seven-year stint. I don’t believe we ever find out exactly what it was he was in for, but given his demeanor, it seems unlikely that it was anything too serious. His wife wants nothing to do with him, nor does she want him coming around to see their teenage daughter. He has one confidant – a good, quirky man named Thomas (Robbie Coltrane), who spends his days making oddball art, such as plates of plastic spaghetti and Virgin Mary lamps. Like many similar movie crooks, George has no idea how to go straight, so he returns to his former employer, Mortwell (Michael Caine, giving an unusually nasty turn), looking for work. Not that he actually gets into see Mortwell – no, instead he’s reduced to dealing with average middle men, rather than the Big Boss himself. Business appears to have changed drastically since he went in, and so he’s given the menial job of driving a beautiful prostitute, Simone (Cathy Tyson), from one hotel to the next.
The pair do not immediately hit it off, as Simone expects a certain amount of decorum from the man she’s seen all over town with, and George is something of a slob (or as he puts it, “cheap”). She helps to give him a makeover, and eventually they start trusting one another. He also falls for her, but as the movie goes on it becomes clear that the affections will not be returned. Halfway through, “Mona Lisa” gets dark and ugly. George finds himself entering deeper into the world of human trafficking, pornography and drugs in order to find someone that Simone has lost. Eventually he crosses paths with Mortwell, and in the process begins playing a lethal game, and one he may not be equipped to win.
Like so many little British films, what “Mona Lisa” does best is present interesting characters. These people fascinate because they don’t play to the expectations of “the hero,” “the hooker” or “the thug,” and you genuinely want to know their eventual fates. The first half of the film is surprisingly light, sometimes sweet and even vaguely comical, and through that tone you come to really like George and Simone. By the time the brutal second half arrives, you’re already so invested in the characters that you can’t turn back. It’s a seamless bait and switch that Jordan plays, and even if the material isn’t all that original on paper, the presentation of it most certainly is. One thing that struck me on this viewing is how reminiscent the movie is of “Taxi Driver.” It’s like the Bizarro British equivalent of the Martin Scorsese film. It’s doubtful anybody would accuse it of being a rip-off, but the dramatic similarities are definitely there, and chances are if you like that movie (and really, who doesn’t?), you’ll like this one too.
Bob Hoskins snagged his sole Academy Award nomination for “Mona Lisa,” in addition to winning a slew of other awards for the movie. While I don’t know for sure, it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that his work in this film led to Robert Zemeckis casting him as Eddie Valiant in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” which came out two years later. The movie pretty much belongs to him, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing George (like Mickey Rourke, for instance, despite the fact that Rourke is a fine actor himself). Hoskins fits the material like a glove, and “Mona Lisa” is a wonderful reminder of exactly how good of an actor this man really is, especially since he hasn’t been used all that well in recent years.
Single Disc Blu-Ray Review:
As mentioned earlier, I used to watch this flick a lot. The copy I had was a crappy, muddy, cropped laserdisc (ironically, from Image Entertainment, the same folks responsible for this Blu-ray), so my opinion of this disc is likely a direct result of having seen it presented so shoddily on so many occasions. It looks almost exactly as one would expect a low-budget British film from the mid-80s to look, replete with a nice, unobtrusive layer of grain, that, if anything, merely gives “Mona Lisa” some texture. It was surprising to find out the film had far more color than I’d previously thought, especially in the lighter first half. (Frequent Terry Gilliam collaborator Roger Pratt is the DP.) Is it perfect? Probably not. There is the occasional speck of dirt and it could likely look better, and yet this seemed acceptable given the material. The audio is presented on a DTS 5.1 track that isn’t even remotely dynamic, but gets the job done. There’s a lengthy sequence that uses “In Too Deep” by Genesis that sounds real nice. I’m not sure of the history the song has with this movie, but it gets its own spotlight in the opening credits. Aside from the theatrical trailer, there are unfortunately no other extras.