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V.I. WARSHAWSKI (1991) blu-ray review

February 14, 2018

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written by: Edward Taylor, David Aaron Cohen and Nick Thiel
produced by: Penney Winkelman Cox and Jeffrey Lurie
directed by: Jeff Kanew
rated: R (for language and moments of violence)
runtime: 89 min.
U.S. release date: July 26, 1991
blu-ray release date: February 13, 2018

 

When it was released in 1991 at the end of July, the crime thriller/action comedy set in Chicago, “V.I. Warshawski”, didn’t have a chance. Earlier that month, the box office exploded with the likes of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and “Point Break” and certain movies that were released the month before, such as “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” and “City Slickers”, were still doing well, plus the success of “Hot Shots!” was just around the corner. This was back when movies would stay in the theater longer, providing a better chance for repeat viewings and word-of-mouth to build. I knew of “V.I. Warshawski” back then, but I admittedly was busy watching those movies instead of this attempt at making a franchise out of American author Sara Paretsky’s novels revolving around a hard-boiled female detective. While the other movies released that summer are partly to blame for this movie’s failure, it’s also safe to say that moviegoers weren’t quite ready for a female-led detective series like this on the big-screen, unfortunately.

That being said, I was one of those moviegoers. Still, I also passed on the other movies that opened the same day as “V.I. Warshawski” and you probably did too and here’s a quick look at why…there was another attempt at resuscitating the dynamic comedy duo of Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in “Another You”, current pretty bad boys in “Mobsters” with Christian Slater, Patrick Dempsey and Richard Grieco and the Mel Brooks bomb “Life Stinks”. Yeah, if I were to go back in time to 1991 and forced to choose which new movie to see on opening day back on July 26th, I’d have definitely picked “V.I. Warshawski”. There’s a certain curiosity that finds me going back to movies I missed that years later I find myself open to giving them a chance. In the case of this movie, I’m glad I did.

V.I. Warshawski (Kathleen Turner, “Romancing the Stone” and “War of the Roses”) is a private investigator who must be doing something right, since she can afford to live in one of those apartments on Sheffield Ave. that overlook Wrigley Field. Her friends know her as “Vic”, but she prefers the “V.I.” on a professional level to separate friends from clients, among other reasons, like being taken seriously. She has an on-again/off-again relationship with local reporter, Murray Ryerson (Jay O. Sanders, “JKF” and “Kiss the Girls”), but one night at her favorite cocktail lounge, the Golden Glow (that’s the Green Mill, for those in the know), she meets former Blackhawks hockey player “Boom-Boom” Grafalk (Stephen Meadows) and just knows that they’re going to hook up. Unfortunately, nothing is ever easy for Vic.

Not long after they hook up, Boom-Boom shows up at Vic’s doorstep and asks if she can keep on eye on his thirteen year-old daughter, Kat (Angela Goethals, “Home Alone” and “Jerry Maguire”), for him. Without either of them getting so much of a choice, Kat and Vic are left with each other and the next thing we know Boom-Boom turns up dead (literally the result of an explosion at a pier, living up to his nickname) and it doesn’t look like an accident. Naturally, Vic is curious, which is frowned upon by her old friend, Det. Lt. Bobby Malloy (Charles Durning, in a small role) and it doesn’t seem like Boom-Boom’s brothers, Horton (Frederick Coffin, “Shoot to Kill”) and Trumble (Charles McCaughan, “Waxwork”) will be of any help and soon enough she becomes a target by the same people who killed Boom-Boom.

When the independent and resilient Kat becomes Vic’s next client, hired to find who killed her father (something she was already working on), the two set out to crack the case and, in doing so, become reluctantly fond of each other. As Vic uncovers the complex reason Boom-Boom was killed, she runs into an inner circle of low-lifes – like her old high school classmate, Smeissen (Wayne Knight), who is now a wanna-be kingpin – as she gets deeper involved in the case.

 

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“V.I. Warshawski” is a throwback detective yarn, based on Paretsky’s second novel with Warshawski in the lead, Deadlock (published in 1984), adapted here by screenwriters Edward Taylor, David Aaron Cohen, and Nick Thiel. Probably the biggest flaw is how different the tone is from the source. The writers and director Jeff Kanew (“The Revenge of the Nerds” and “Troop Beverly Hills”) settle on a tone that’s infused with more comedy than the source material, which becomes a crutch, veering from having a thriller with this storyline immersing itself in an authentic reality.  But, that wasn’t necessarily Kanew’s choice. The director touches on how the studio heads (Buena Vista, owned by Disney) wanted a lighter tone, with more action and laughs.

That’s too bad considering the potential here for something a little more edgy, but at the same time the comedy here is great thanks to the cast, led by a spot-on Turner. The role of Warshawski plays to Turner’s strengths – she’s tough-as-nails but still glamorous, more concerned about getting a scratch on her shoe than on her face and quick with a cutting comeback when dealing with men who aren’t taking her seriously, which seem to be everywhere. Turner is great with Goethal’s Kat, a scrappy, potty-mouthed teenager (probably why the movie earned an R-rating) who is thankfully not the whiny and annoying type, and impart’s some of Vic’s wisdom when it comes to men, “Never underestimate a man’s ability to underestimate a woman”. 

On that note, the movie touches on the discrimination Warshawski inevitably comes across in a profession typically dominated by men. It’s an unfortunately timely dilemma, often played here for laughs, but Turner is so great you can see how annoyed and done she is in dealing with the opposite sex at every turn. They doubt her and talk down to her and yet she just brushes it all off and keeps her head in the case, pushing past the mansplaining. It’s a nice balance to have a teenage girl to lighten the mood a bit and also provide Vic opportunities to pass on the pitfalls in dealing with men, something the girl is sadly already used to. Not all guys are scumbags in “V.I. Warshawski” (although Stephen Root shows up as one early in the movie), character actor Jay O. Sanders is great as Vic’s buddy, who’s never written to upstage the lead and winds up a much-needed dependable character for Vic.

 

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The snappy banter between Vic and Murray is fun and reminded me of Old Hollywood’s screwball comedies and Vic’s back-and-forth with the baddies of the movie are reminiscent of what’s found in noir films. None of that is bad, in fact, I welcome it viewing “V.I. Warshawski” now, but it’s understandable that in 1991, audiences didn’t care for the movie’s cleverness or its talented cast.

While the motive behind the antagonists in the movie are a little convoluted (involving real estate development somehow), its story is kind of familiar, especially the set-up of a child thrown into an adult’s life and then accompanying them. This pairing isn’t new and one could probably point it all back to John Cassavetes’ “Gloria” from 1980, in which Gena Rowlands is on the run from the mob with a young boy, trying to keep them both alive. This was also seen in Luc Besson’s “Leon”, Kurt Wimmer’s “Ultraviolet” and Erick Zonca’s 2008 film “Julia”, starring Tilda Swinton and even the recent Taraji P. Henson crime thriller “Proud Mary”. I’m sure I’m missing some other movies that “Gloria” inspired, but it’s a movie that definitely came to mind when approaching “V.I. Warshawski”.

One specific draw for me in viewing “V.I. Warshawski” was its setting. As a Chicagoan, I’m always interested in how right or wrong the movies get the Windy City. Director Jeff Kanew (“Revenge of the Nerds” and “Tough Guys”) shot most of the movie in Chicago, using the environment for some action sequences such as a boat chase along the Chicago River and of course Wrigley Field is featured prominently. Mostly, it’s just fascinating and kind of cool to see what the city looked like so many years ago.

This isn’t the fist time “V.I. Warshawski” gets a blu-ray release, but it’s the first time Kino Lorber gets a crack at it. Along with a fine-looking transfer the movie is accompanied by a theatrical trailer and the aforementioned commentary by director Jeff Kanew, who offers an on-point and informative look at the movie. Ultimately, this is an entertaining movie that was dismissed when it was released and often unfairly laughed off. It’s worth catching up with it just for Turner, simply to be reminded of her talent and indomitable screen presence.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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