Combustible Celluloid
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With: Javier Bardem, Laura Morante, Juan Diego Botto, Elvira Minguez, Alexandra Lencastre, Oliver Cotton
Written by: Nicholas Shakespeare, based on his novel
Directed by: John Malkovich
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, and for language
Language: with English subtitles
Running Time: 133
Date: 01/11/2002

The Dancer Upstairs (2003)

2 Stars (out of 4)

'Dancer' in the Dark

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Recently, John Malkovich has shown decreasing trust in Hollywood films and more faith in European films. Beginning in the mid-90s he began working more and more with international directors like Michelangelo Antonioni from Italy (Beyond the Clouds), Manoel de Oliveira from Portugal (The Convent, I'm Going Home), Raoul Ruiz from Chile (Time Regained) and Volker Schlondorff from Germany (The Ogre). And in 1999, while serving on a film festival jury, Malkovich fell in love with the Indian film The Terrorist by Santosh Sivan and helped get it distributed in the U.S. in 2000. Even his latest U.S. films like Being John Malkovich and Shadow of the Vampire show an eclectic taste and an impatience for the ordinary.

So it's hugely disappointing and not a little confusing that Malkovich's own directorial debut, The Dancer Upstairs plays like a routine American thriller thinly disguised as a South American political allegory. Yet, he shows competence behind the camera, eliciting fine performances and creating more than a few interesting sequences.

Based on the popular novel by Nicholas Shakespeare, The Dancer Upstairs concerns a gang of unidentified radical revolutionaries who attack unseen and disappear. Their work ranges from hanging dead dogs on the streetlights to appearing as a performance art group and shooting audience members, making it look like part of the act.

Officer Rejas (Javier Bardem) is assigned to smoke out the culprits, but he has absolutely nothing to go on. The case takes years, and the breaks almost always come in the form of coincidences rather than actual detective work. After trying and failing to crack a book of code words, Rejas gives up and goes home. While tidying his living room, he comes across a pile of fashion magazines, whose titles match the code words he was just looking at!

Neither Malkovich nor Shakespeare gives us much in the way of suspense. A prologue reveals everything we need to know about the killer, and we never see him again until the end. There's no game of chess; we never understand what moves he's making to stay ahead of the cops.

In addition, the filmmakers give the married Rejas a love interest in the form of dance teacher Yolanda (Laura Morante). It's never explained how Rejas justifies his fling, except for a few scenes where his wife whines about wanting a nose job. And then, annoyingly, Rejas' association with Yolanda turns out to be yet another coincidence.

No, instead of looking toward his European colleagues for inspiration, Malkovich has looked back at his great 1993 Hollywood action/suspense film In the Line of Fire, but has failed to grasp the nuances that made that film work. Instead of crafting a tight-knit tete-a-tete, he's given us a loose, sloppy, dull one and slathered it with references to South American politics to make it seem more important and more exotic.

It's a wishy-washy picture; Malkovich should have whole-heartedly embraced either the politics or the pulp. He does not get away with both.

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