Thursday, July 5, 2012

A Frank Review of "Fatal Beauty" (1987)

The Short Version? Beverly Hills Narc Cop
What Is It? Police Action Dramedy
Who Is In It? Oda Mae Brown, Wade Garrett, Charles Lee Ray
Should I See It? Maybe

I saw Fatal Beauty at the movie theater because I'd become a Whoopi Goldberg fan in 1987. Since I came from lower class stock, that was because of Jumpin' Jack Flash instead of The Color Purple, but I got around to it eventually. Anyway, Fatal Beauty is probably best remembered for the controversy surrounding a love scene between Goldberg and co-star Sam Elliott being cut out before release because of fears audiences would reject the interracial romance, or at least Whoopi being half of one. Cher was supposed to star, which explains all the references to the Italian cop Rita Rizzoli who is written as a highly desirable woman in all but one scene, yet she's played by an African-American woman best known for a part partially defined by her perceived "ugliness." I'm glad the part wasn't rewritten though, because I've always thought Whoopi was better looking than she was given credit for, and it made for a fantastic dynamic with Elliott.

Goldberg plays a West Coast narcotics cop on the trail of a lethally tainted batch of drugs stolen by two psychopaths and put on the street as "Fatal Beauty." It's supposed to be a combination of cocaine and PCP that you snort and either kills you or turns you into a superhuman madman inside of thirty seconds. Who would want to kill off all of their clientele and attract that kind of attention, and how could a room full of people fall victim to the drug if the negative effects were that dramatically swift? Movie logic at work. While chasing the drug, Rizzoli is also trying to bust the worst drug kingpin ever, who oversees dealing at his legitimate businesses and moves merchandise in vans with his name on them. It's the kind of anti-drug movie that you'd have to be stoned to buy into, and isn't served at all well by crumby musical selections and journeyman direction by Tom Holland.

What salvages the movie is casting. Whoopi Goldberg has always had a strong screen presence, and while none of the scripted comedy works, the actress carries the film on her back with dramatic chops and personality. You hardly even notice that her bullets almost never connect and she's constantly being rescued by her love interest. One scene in which she breaks down after a particularly bad day is so potent and brushes so close to autobiographical territory, one suspects Goldberg was delivering championship improvisational ad-libbing. Sam Elliott, pretty much the last guy you'd ever expect as a romantic foil for Goldberg, has such earnest conviction in his obvious affection for Rizzoli that he sells the living shit out of Mike Marshak. Rubén Blades, Brad Dourif and James LeGros also put a lot more effort into their non-roles than you'd ever expect from such a shoddy paycheck gig, so one wonders if they were standing off to the side during the leads' scenes in awe. The pair's surprising chemistry is that big of a draw, and for the most part, the only one.

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