Sony // 1998 // 101 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge George Hatch (Retired) // May 19th, 2004
If you find somebody to love in this world
You better hang on tooth and nail
The wolf is always howling at the door
In a New York minute, everything can change
In a New York minute, things can get a little strange
-- New York Minute (Don Henley)
Although that Don Henley song isn't used on the soundtrack, those few lines sum up the plot of this slice of life -- and heaping portion of death -- in New York City's underbelly, and also describes the speed at which the main character moves through its environs coping with situations that are more than just "a little strange" in The Velocity of Gary.
"One sexy girl, two hot guys, a million possibilities" reads the cover line, but those odds are a long shot because the "wolf at the door" is AIDS, and bisexual porn star Valentino (Vincent D'Onofrio) is dying while two people struggle desperately to keep him in their lives.
Captivated by a poster for "Sinderalla" starring Veronica and Valentino, naïve male hustler Gary* (not his real name), played by Thomas Jane, is quickly seduced into Valentino's orbit with pseudo-philosophical psychobabble and a powerful lip-lock guaranteed to generate more of a black hole than a mere vacuum in Gary's space. Valentino sets Gary on the crooked and disreputable road to survival in the big city with a phone sex job that eventually leads to full-time street hustling, insisting all the while that he's never to use his real name. Valentino dubs him "Gary" and invites him to move in.
There's a hitch, however, in the form of Mary Carmen (Salma Hayek), Valentino's lover, and a glitch in that we never get enough backstory of how this particular relationship developed. As the shortest edge of a lopsided sexual triangle, Mary Carmen is a stereotypical hotheaded Latina resorting to exaggerated attitude and staccato verbal attacks in Spanish to make her point or intimidate anyone trying to contradict her. What Valentino sees in her, or why she puts up with his porn stardom and bisexuality, is never made clear.
Director Dan Ireland opted for the trendy fractured-narrative strategy hoping, perhaps, that some non-linear sleight-of-hand might divert attention from plot holes and shortcomings in characterization. Several scenes are labeled with an on-screen time reference -- "A few days earlier," et cetera -- suggesting he may have felt unsure of either his directorial hand or the audience's intelligence. Others scenes are beautifully edited transitions into the past, as when Mary Carmen looks out a hospital window and sees herself talking to Valentino across the street followed by close-up of the couple that takes us back to the day Valentino told her how he met Gary.
The first half-hour of The Velocity of Gary takes off in so many directions it's difficult to anticipate just where the story is headed. The film opens with hustler Gary strutting the streets for clients but taking the time to rescue the deaf Kid Joey (Chad Lindberg, The Last Samurai, The Fast and the Furious) from a bunch of thugs. "A few weeks later" at the local donut shop, Kid Joey, decked out in rhinestones and white cowboy gear, lip syncs to a Patsy Cline song he can't hear while Crayola-colored drag queens snort coke and comment on the proceedings. Valentino's former co-star Veronica (Olivia D'Abo, The Wonder Years) wants to get him back into the business despite his rapidly deteriorating health, waitress Mary Carmen is so busy being so rude to customers she finally loses her job -- and everybody wants a piece of Gary.
When Valentino collapses in street and a cab kills Kid Joey, who was running for help, it triggers a series of flashbacks in which images of death accumulate almost as fast as the overwrought religious symbolism. It's no surprise that someone dressed as The Grim Reaper makes an appearance at the annual Halloween Parade in Greenwich Village, but when Valentino's dog, Rodney, goes astray and sniffs the curbside corpse of another dead pooch, I could sense a sledgehammer dangling over my head. Mary Carmen christens Valentino's new threesome the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, nominating the younger Gary as the Father. Nat, the local tattoo artist, played by Ethan Hawke (Gattaca, Training Day), has a crown of thorns inked across his forehead and a Star of David on the back of his hand; and when Gary follows a Valentino look-alike into church, he zeros in one of the Stations of the Cross: Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus. I should have known that the porn queen's name had more going for it than mere alliterative advertising appeal.
Vincent D'Onofrio (The Salton Sea, Full Metal Jacket) and Thomas Jane (Magnolia, The Punisher (2004)) are both intense, sensual actors and carry the first two-thirds of the film with a convincing mutual attraction that helps distract viewers from the more heavy-handed elements of the screenplay, which was adapted by James Still from his one-man stage play. Some of the dialogue betrays its theatrical origin by being so poetic -- "Gary dreams about kissing someone so hard his mouth hurts. He dreams about kissing someone so softly his heart hurts. Gary dreams about kissing someone so completely that nothing hurts." -- that, well, it hurts. Perhaps only Tennessee Williams could successfully make a street brute sound like Orpheus, but too many lines in this stage-to-screen transition strike too many false notes.
Salma Hayek (Dogma, Desperado) reprises every role in which she was typecast before taking hold of her career by producing and starring in Frida. So when Valentino is confined to a sickbed (read: when D'Onofrio is out of the picture), the last third of the film drags as Gary and Mary Carmen try to reconcile their differences and contemplate their lives without him. Mary Carmen reverts to the past, recalling happier times in a montage of her childhood, while Gary seeks refuge in decrepit theaters showing Valentino's old films. Mary Carmen learns she is pregnant with Valentino's child and that both may be infected with AIDS, so Gary must decide if he should help raise the child as a way of keeping his love for Valentino alive.
The Velocity of Gary was director Dan Ireland's follow-up to one of the most underrated films of the 1990s, The Whole Wide World (1996), a bio-drama also co-produced by and starring D'Onofrio in which he played the 1930s pulp-fiction writer Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan the Barbarian), another social misfit whose life ended tragically. The impressive atmospheric visuals of cinematographer Claudio Rocha were recalled for this project, but they have a been-there-seen-that quality that fails to conjure up any unique urban impressions of a seedy milieu that already had been better exploited in films like Boogie Nights, Trainspotting, and Bad Lieutenant.
Something may have been lost in Columbia TriStar's anamorphic but run-of-the-mill 2.35:1 widescreen transfer, and since the only extras are two thematically related trailers for The Opposite of Sex, Philadelphia, and a Salma Hayek promo, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, I can't help but think this disc was just a random reissue to keep their catalog up to date, especially when compared with the extras on The Whole Wide World DVD that a included interviews and a commentary by those involved.
Even with the weak third act, The Velocity of Gary could have been more successful had both the writer and director dispensed with the baroque symbolic overload and given the characters some room to breathe, or in Valentino's case wheeze. When spilled coffee miraculously turns into the letter V as it spreads across the floor, we're taken into the realm of magic realism contradicting the film's gritty and grim reality. Still the two leads and several supporting performances are strong enough to make us care about the people in this netherworld of dubious moral values and mutual, if precautious, respect.
Case dismissed. Gary* (insert his real name for the official court record) is free to go.
Review content copyright © 2004 George Hatch; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Three Trailers: Once Upon a Time in Mexico, The Opposite of Sex, Philadelphia