Artisan // 1988 // 90 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Treadway (Retired) // December 18th, 2003
Passion. Greed. Murder. Tonight they pay.
George "Cat Chaser" Moran (Peter Weller) is a former soldier still haunted by his memories of the Santo Domingo invasion of the mid 1960s. He now works in a two-bit hotel when a mysterious man arrives named Nolan Tyner (Frederic Forrest). He works for Jiggs Scully (Charles Durning), who is connected to some rich gangsters (a storyline severely underdeveloped in this cut; more on that later).
Anyway, he returns to Santo Domingo to try and find the girl who saved his life in the invasion. There he finds an old flame, Mary de Boya (Kelly McGillis), who is married to former general Andres de Boya (Tomas Milian). They reignite their passion but Cat Chaser finds himself drawn into a wide web of intrigue, backstabbings, and confusion.
Cat Chaser is based on a novel by Elmore Leonard. The novel was one of his best -- an erotic, exciting narrative chock full of great dialogue and memorable characters. In addition, it had one of Leonard's best plots, loaded with double crosses laid on top of double crosses and backstabbings galore. It's a terrific read.
What a shame the movie is such a mess. Apparently, director Abel Ferrara handed in a cut that ran three hours. Vestron Pictures, then in the middle of bankruptcy and having blown the profits made from Dirty Dancing, decided to take the film away and reedit it. Their cut ran 98 minutes. Then Jack Valenti and the MPAA slapped the film with an X rating and eight more minutes were shaved; in particular a scene in which we see the most intimate part of Ms. McGillis' anatomy. (Never mind that the full frontal male nudity remained intact! Apparently in Valentiland, male genitals are fine but female genitals are a big no-no, but that's another story.) The result: a 90-minute film that is awfully disjointed.
The ingredients are there for a good film. The performances are all terrific. Peter Weller makes a brooding, dark hero and his insistence to retain Leonard's dialogue as closely as possible is not only a sign of respect toward the author but also that the actor was deeply connected to the material. A major criticism of Kelly McGillis is that she tends to lack sexual fireworks with her co-stars in any sex scenes. Pick any scene in Cat Chaser and you'll see that charge dissolve into thin air. She is full of fireworks and she has strong chemistry with Weller. Add reliable supporting actors Frederic Forrest, Charles Durning, and Tomas Milian, and you have a well-acted picture. Director Ferrara shows a good feel for this material and he is always willing to push the envelope to create something unique and original.
But the narrative is extremely disjointed by the severe editing by the studio and MPAA officials. What's left will leave those unfamiliar with Leonard's novel in major confusion. The story is confusing enough in its original state, but this cut doesn't give the story a chance. Whole story strands were deleted entirely, including some crucially important ones that are necessary to the ending of the film. Characters come and go with no explanation. The ending is a particular mess and anyone who can make heads or tails of it deserves some sort of prize. What's left is a series of well acted and directed scenes in search of the bigger puzzle.
I would really like to see that three-hour cut. A DVD release would have been a perfect opportunity to showcase that lost cut, and Abel Ferrara has shown a willingness to talk about this particular film (he'll even show you his cut if you ask him, according to the site "Uncle Snoopy's Movie House"). But Artisan again misses the boat, preferring to rush out the existing version. But they also have the longer 98 minute cut of the film, which is why I find it surprising they released the shortest version instead.
Artisan once again fails when it comes to decent transfers. The full frame transfer again looks like they just took an existing VHS master and transferred it to DVD with no care. The film has a strange look that resembles Saran Wrap on the screen. Grain is present throughout the feature as well as lots of dirt, reel marks, and scratches. A film from 1988 shouldn't look this terrible, yet Artisan thinks we should just accept it and extract the money from our wallets. When are we going to learn?
Just as they have done in the past, they present the film in Dolby Digital 2.0 surround stereo sound. Sounds impressive until you listen to the mix for yourself. It's flat, lifeless, and muddy in all the wrong places. The most important feature of an Elmore Leonard novel is the dialogue, and indeed the film reflects that strength. The poor sound mix defeats that. It's even sadder when considering the score by jazz veteran Chick Corea; it is excellent on its own. Do yourself a favor and buy the soundtrack album instead.
Not a single extra has been included. Unless you count a scene index and the term "digitally remastered" (what a joke!) to be extras, that is.
It is due to those factors and the fact that the shortest Valenti approved cut was used instead of either the longer unrated version (a hot VHS in the early '90s) or Ferrara's director's cut, I just can't recommend spending $14.95 for this. I'd rather be tarred and feathered than force anyone to purchase it.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 1988
MPAA Rating: Rated R