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120 Minutes of Pure Torture

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 26, 1999

  Movie Critic

'8MM' Nicolas Cage, left, seeks out scuzz and filth and Peter Stormare in "8MM." (Columbia TriStar)

Joel Schumacher
Nicolas Cage;
Joaquin Phoenix;
Peter Stormare;
James Gandolfini;
Catherine Keener
Running Time:
2 hours, 5 minutes
Under 17 restricted

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It's about snuff movies! It's sickeningly violent! It has a fat guy in a mask! It's "Eight Millimeter" and it's . . . insipid.

The real shocker in the much-ballyhooed Nicolas Cage film is how mild it turns out to be, how uninspired. Far from the outlaw movie you hate to love and love to hate, it's just a so-so waste of time. It's so bereft of imagination that it uses the "Oh-no!-I-dropped-the- gun-just-out-of-reach" thing three times in the last three minutes. Can't Nick Cage hang on to his gun? It's a little bitty one, so it shouldn't be that hard!

Cage plays Tom Welles, a Harrisburg, Pa., private investigator, established in the early going as a toady to the frosty aristos of the Pennsylvania state capital. Highly prized for his discretion and judgment, he's called to a mansion one night to meet the widow of a famed, recently defunct steel magnate. It's the kind of mock-Blenheim Palace with mahogany walls and leather sofas, portraits with little brass lights over them, lots of Persian rugs and servants who probably had ancestors at the Round Table to get hair that snowy-perfect.

The widow, an elegant and decent woman played by Myra Carter, has made a disturbing discovery. In her husband's safe, she's found 30 seconds' worth of crudely made snuff movie, in which a lost waif is sliced up by the fat guy in the mask. Of course we never get to see the death porn, because "8MM" director, the super-slick, super-dumb Joel Schumacher, teases us with it, letting random images and the horror in Cage's eyes speak for the barbarity, then prissily diverts our eyes. But it doesn't take a genius to see the hypocrisy: As much as "8MM" pretends to moral elevation from the imagery of blasphemy, it just as much loves to tweak us with glimpses of it.

In any event, Mrs. Christian hires Tom Welles to determine if the film is for real, why her husband would have such a thing, and the identity of the victim.

This is one of those films where the mystery is much better than the solution. As an account of a clever professional investigation by a gifted, even obsessive detective, "8MM" fascinates for its first hour. Cage is in his buttoned-down professional mode, not the florid spit-merchant of "Face/Off." He does hard work at the missing-child national resource center in Philly, discovering after days in the files that the girl is a runaway from South Carolina. (Those scenes, by the way, are the film's one claim to power: They suggest there's an army of lost babies out there, a profoundly disturbing message that the movie in no other way manages to approach.) Going to the child's pitiful house in South Carolina, he discovers her broken mother and a hidden journal that takes him to Los Angeles; there, her old suitcase leads him to the deeper realms of the porn universe, where he comes finally to meet a sleazy director named Eddie Poole (James Gandolfini) and an even sleazier director, Dino Velvet (Peter Stormare), and, of course, the fat killer in the leather mask with the star tattoo on his hand, named Machine (Chris Bauer, the Yale Theater Grad, and say, I'll bet all the old Elis in town are proud of this boy).

But what a crew of bozos! Curley, Moe and Larry, anyone? What about the Three Amigos? Or the Three Tons o' Scum? The movie just dies at this point, sacrificing entirely the sense of eerie menace and scabby moral squalor it had constructed for these clownish fools who seem to lurk well beyond Schumacher's ability to imagine them convincingly. The worst acting, by far, is by Stormare, with his long fingernails and his goatee. He thinks he's playing the Devil on a "Saturday Night Live" skit. His sleepy-eyed moron psycho from "Fargo" was far more frightening and would have made a much better model for the absurd Dino Velvet.

At this point the film becomes a rather over-theatricalized, under-imagined and sadly typical thriller. The plot just vanishes in the revelation of the Mr. Big behind it all. There's not a motive in sight, and the action is bereft of originality. Moreover, the film walks away from its most provocative ideas: It lacks any insight into the pornographic imagination, or the weird power of this stuff to mesmerize even the intelligent, or any idea as to why it's a billion-dollar-a-year industry and the Internet profit leader. Indeed, the movie insists, against all evidence, that porn is a smelly enterprise tucked away in the urinals of L.A.'s post-industrial slums, when it's actually big, big business practiced from Malibu beach houses.

Schumacher is, famously, an ex-window dresser. And that's what his movie is (and what all his movies are): window dressing. He has a great flair for set design (every location in the film is rendered in exquisitely convincing reality) but almost none for the deeper values of drama. He can't direct an action sequence to save his life (a flaw in his two "Batman" pictures as well), and he just falls back on action movie cliches of the '50s to resolve the film.

And while we're on the subject: "8MM"? You're telling me these guys wouldn't shoot on video? But then I realized: "8MM" isn't the width of the film, it's the depth of the IQ of the maker.


© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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