New Line // 1996 // 132 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rankins (Retired) // October 27th, 2003
Trusting the wrong woman can be deadly. (The Judge hates taglines that reveal too much of the plot.)
Based on the second installment in James Lee Burke's long-running series of mystery novels featuring Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux, Heaven's Prisoners is a stylish, atmospheric thriller set amid the Louisiana bayous and the sultry environs of New Orleans. Alec Baldwin stars as the hard-bitten ex-cop who gets drawn into a tangled web of drugs, murder, and ultimately, revenge.
Leaving the past behind is a tall order, but Dave Robicheaux (Alec Baldwin, Pearl Harbor, The Hunt for Red October) is making a game effort. He's quit the New Orleans P.D., for which he was a homicide detective; quit the bottle, in which he was destroying his life; and headed into the swamplands with his wife Annie (Kelly Lynch, Road House, Charlie's Angels) to run a bait-and-tackle shop in New Iberia (famous worldwide as the home of Tabasco sauce) and lead a life of quiet desperation...wait, wrong book.
Anyway, things are ducky in the retooled existence of the Robicheauxes until the day Dave and Annie, entirely by happenstance (and it's always entirely by happenstance in these stories, isn't it?), are on the scene when a drug smuggler's plane swan-dives into the bayou, killing all on board except a frightened El Salvadoran girl (Samantha Lagpacan), whom Annie dubs "Alafair" after Dave's mother.
The plane crash brings a cagey DEA agent named Minos Dautrieve (Vondie Curtis-Hall, who would probably rather everyone remember that he wrote, directed, and co-starred in the Tupac Shakur vehicle Gridlock'd than that he directed the Ishtaresque Mariah Carey vehicle Glitter) sniffing around the Robicheaux abode. In turn, the drug connection brings Dave back in contact with a motley collection of bad memories from his former life in law enforcement -- his childhood chum Bubba Rocque (Eric Roberts, Breakaway, National Security), now the leading purveyor of illicit pharmaceuticals in this neck of the woods; Bubba's sex-kittenish wife Claudette (Teri Hatcher, Tomorrow Never Dies, Spy Kids, TV's Lois and Clark); and Clorox-blonde ecdysiast Robin Gaddis (Mary Stuart Masterson, Some Kind of Wonderful), who's still carrying a torch for Dave from the old days.
Someone, perhaps some several, among the above folks and their nefarious associates would rather Dave quit mucking about in the mystery of the ill-fated aircraft that nearly landed on his head and left him and Annie caring for a doe-eyed orphan. But bulldog Dave can't let a sleeping plane crash lie, leading to a maze of complications, several of which are lethal.
New Orleans, along with San Francisco, is the most visually evocative city in the United States in which to film a motion picture. On camera, the Big Easy is immediately recognizable (unlike, say, Los Angeles, which from the proper angle can double for anywhere else), non-industrial (unlike most big cities in the East and Midwest), and has an international charm and subcultural mystique that is impossible to duplicate. The challenge in filming a story set in New Orleans is to keep the milieu from becoming an excuse for sloppy scripting, as sometimes happens -- "Hey, the movie doesn't actually have to be about anything...it's set in New Orleans!"
Heaven's Prisoners has moments when it teeters precariously close to New Orleans overdose -- all the French-inflected names, colorful local customs, and butchery of bayou accents by non-Cajun actors (yes, New Yawker Alec Baldwin and Cali girl Teri Hatcher, I'm talking about you) get a trifle thick at times. But truth to tell, there's nothing seriously wrong with Heaven's Prisoners that judicious application of the editor's shears wouldn't repair. There's an abundance of goodies to like here: an involving, coherent story; interesting, complex characters; realistically nuanced performances; and a rich (if occasionally overworked) sense of locale.
Director Phil Joanou (Three O'Clock High) owns a sharp eye for people and places, but not so much for the clock on the wall. (Joanou's previous dips into the thriller pool, State of Grace and Final Analysis, could each have used a trim too. I'm detecting a pattern here.) The film winds on about twenty minutes too long -- a foible that could be easily remedied by snipping out some of the unnecessary weight of subplot woven in by writers Harley Peyton, who failed miserably working similar territory with Keys to Tulsa, and Scott Frank, who's since honed his chops adapting Elmore Leonard (Out of Sight, Get Shorty) and Philip K. Dick (Minority Report) for the screen. A nip here, a tuck there, and a leaner, tighter (and, in the process, more suspenseful) Heaven's Prisoners might have been hailed as a modern noir classic.
Pacing aside, the movie's still awfully darned good, as Joanou coaxes sterling performances from two of the cinema's most frustratingly inconsistent actors. Alec Baldwin looks a skosh too male-model handsome as the rough-and-tumble Robicheaux, but he plays all of the tragic hero's emotional notes with earnest accuracy despite his come-and-go dialect. Eric Roberts, who can be either outhouse or castle, comes a castle here as a slick, self-important minor-league thug who wants to swim with the sharks. Even better is Vondie Curtis-Hall, who makes the most of his brief appearances as the wily Fed who knows more than he's revealing. On the distaff side, Teri Hatcher is her usual lightweight self playing the femme fatale (pouty lips and a willingness to doff the duds do not a legitimate acting career make, Shannon...I mean, Teri). The always welcome Mary Stuart Masterson, however, gets solid mileage out of her stereotypical hooker-with-a-heart (has there ever been a movie where the hooker didn't have a heart of gold, and turned out to be an evil psycho killer?), while Kelly Lynch is suitably radiant as the target of that cardinal rule of the Hollywood revenge drama: the drop-dead-gorgeous wife always takes one for the team.
If only the team got on with business a little more briskly. But then, this is New Orleans...what's the hurry, anyway?
As is becoming its wont outside its premier titles (i.e., The Lord of the Rings trilogy), New Line Home Entertainment pops Heaven's Prisoners into an attractive presentation but doesn't surround it with much to compel a purchase. No complaints about the digital transfer -- it's outstanding. In fact, for a non-blockbuster catalog title, this is an impressive piece of work by New Line, struck from a defect-free print AND offering crispness, texture, and colors so realistic you'd think you could stroll right into the frame and smell the beignets and mint juleps. Some minimal edge enhancement is employed, but it isn't obtrusive. If there were other digital errors, I didn't spot them.
For whatever reason, three audio options are sandwiched onto the disc, including a DTS soundtrack. I test-drove the Dolby Digital track for the purpose of this review, and found it warm and active, if veering somewhat toward the bright side of the audio spectrum. Dialogue is clearly transmitted, and at an appropriate balance level.
For the DTS-challenged, the only added features are theatrical trailers for Heaven's Prisoners plus other New Line product (Blink, The Lawnmower Man 2, and Excessive Force), the latter three linked together in customary New Line fashion so the viewer has to watch (or at least scan) all three in succession. If you really feel a state of New Line deprivation coming on, you can surf their Web site using the DVD-ROM link, or check out the DVD crew's credits behind the logo on the main menu.
This just in from the Cliché Department: any film that begins with an alcoholic character discussing his/her recovery will invariably see, at some point, that character slugging down a shot or a six-pack. Trust us.
Keep an eye out for Joanou repertory regular Paul Guilfoyle prepping for his role on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation in a walk-on as a New Orleans detective.
In case you're wondering, yes, I do know what it means to miss New Orleans. You may too, after taking in Heaven's Prisoners. An enjoyable if drawn-out thriller featuring memorable characters and creditable acting, not least of all by the Crescent City herself.
Director Phil Joanou is sentenced to 30 days sweeping up in the editing room, just so he doesn't forget what it looks like while making his next picture. Dave Robicheaux and his bayou crew are free to go party on Bourbon Street.
Court is adjourned. The Judge will go eat some shrimp now.
Review content copyright © 2003 Michael Rankins; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 132 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Theatrical Trailer
* Bonus Trailers
* The Official James Lee Burke Site