Although its title falsely promises loads of ménage à trois, Judge Patrick Bromley finds this flimsy film noir replete with homage du fromage.
A sinfully tasty, hard-boiled brew of sex, extortion, and murder.
Don't get your hopes up, folks—despite some clever marketing on the part of Columbia TriStar (the cover of the DVD features pictures of stars Dominic Purcell, Ali Larter, and Gina Gershon, and leaves the viewer to draw his or her own conclusion), the infamous act referred to in the film's title does not take place here. Go rent Wild Things. Or Wild Things 2.
Facts of the Case
3-Way (which, by the way, appears in the opening titles as Three Way…go figure) opens with Lew (Dominic Purcell, John Doe, Equilibrium) being dumped virtually mid-coitus by his wife, whom he discovers on a boat in the arms of another man—both dead—in the very next scene. If that doesn't grab you—and it shouldn't—then you should probably go ahead and turn 3-Way off at this point. It ain't getting much better.
Cut to several months later. Still reeling from the inexplicable maritime murder of his no-good-cheatin' wife, Lew has taken up residence in a sleepy town (it's either "Out West" or "Down South"—the cliché remains unclear to me) as a sign painter. One night, while unveiling his latest Charhouse masterpiece, Lew overhears a young couple—sexy/stupid Ralph (Desmond Harrington, Wrong Turn) and sexy/dirty Isobel (Ali Larter, Varsity Blues, Final Destination 2)—plotting a kidnapping. Lew takes it upon himself to intervene, become a hero, and collect the ransom all at once (how this works exactly is never made clear—shame on me for seeking logic), bringing in his realtor girlfriend, Rita (Joy Bryant, Honey), to help pull it off.
Shockingly, things don't go exactly as planned—if they ever did in films like this, the well would have dried up even sooner than it already has (and if 3-Way is any indication, it has). Dwight Yoakam (The Newton Boys, Panic Room) shows up, claiming to be aware of Lew's involvement in the murder of his wife (the one on the boat) and blackmailing him for information. The kidnapping victim, Ralph's wife Florence (Gina Gershon, Bound, Prey for Rock and Roll), turns out to be a less-than-cooperative captive. Rita might be up to more than she lets on. Ralph and Isobel can't seem to stop gettin' freaky. Lew can't seem to stop brooding. And the movie—it just can't seem to end.
3-Way is a bad movie disguised as a slightly better one. It's slick and polished on the surface, giving the appearance of a skillful and accomplished modern-day film noir—it's only when you pay any attention to the story or the performances that you come to realize just how hollow it all is. It rehashes a plot so tired it's narcoleptic (and, according to the Internet Movie Database, is based on a 1963 pulp novel called Wild to Possess), inserts some daytime-soap-attractive actors, and adds a liberal dose of sex in an attempt to keep things lively, yet can't seem to help but fall flat in every department. Quite simply, it doesn't work.
The film desperately wants to employ conventions of film noir in an attempt to evoke the best of that genre, but has no real understanding of what makes true film noir work—it's more than just crime and sexuality. For starters, 3-Way is too easy on its protagonist; he's basically smarter than every other character on the film, which doesn't allow for him to be manipulated by anyone else. Manipulation is a must for good noir, and it's usually the central character being manipulated, either through greed or through sex—or both. 3-Way's Lew certainly demonstrates some greed—he wants a bunch of money because he's "owed it" after a string of hard luck—but the film never allows it to get the better of him. Nor is he required to pay any price for that greed—the film wants him to get away with it. And despite all the sex on hand, the film really never knows how to use it—not by noir standards, at least. It should be a tool for manipulation; either our hero should want to sleep with someone so badly he's willing to do something stupid, or is currently enjoying sleeping with someone so badly he's willing to do something stupid to keep doing it. The only sex found in 3-Way is done by people whom we would expect to be having it: Lew has sex with his girlfriend, and Ralph has sex with Isobel (okay, those last two are having an affair, but they're just peripheral characters—there's no moral or dramatic dilemma surrounding their sex life). No one uses sex or the promise of it as a tool to get what they want, making its inclusion meaningless to the story—it's just exploitation.
The utter lack of a convincingly hapless noir protagonist or femme fatale in 3-Way might just be for the best, as the actors cast in the film would most likely not be up to the challenge. Dominic Purcell, as Lew, turns in one of the most singularly uninteresting performances in recent memory—every line is given the exact same intonation and half-whispered tough-guy treatment. His counterpart, former model Joy Bryant, is just as pretty but just as wooden. She's a blank slate the whole way through, unable to conjure up what little character doubt the film requires of her—as the closest thing to a femme fatale on hand in the film, Bryant doesn't fit the bill. For whatever reason, Gina Gershon accepted a small but important role in this mess, and one keeps hoping that she'll somehow be able to turn it around when she finally shows up. That hope remains unfulfilled—the part is too underwritten and Gershon too seldom seen to really register. She may make the most of her screen time, but can't make a difference overall. Only Dwight Yoakam, in an equally brief role, is really able to elevate the film during his scenes—he's effective in a quietly menacing role that, once again, the film isn't really sure what to do with.
Director Scott Ziehl (Earth vs. The Spider) works overtime to stylize the film, whipping up frenzied doses of cinematic technique to compensate for a weak story—it's as though he learned somewhere that good film noir is most often a masterful exercise in style and atmosphere, but didn't bother to recognize that the style and atmosphere have to serve the story, not just show off. Sure, there are jump cuts and rack zooms galore in 3-Way, but to what effect? The whole thing is a bit cinematically masturbatory by nature, suggesting that if its stylistic conceits don't exist to add anything to the film, they're there for no one but Ziehl himself.
Unlike Ziehl's visual flourishes, Columbia TriStar's DVD of 3-Way actually does go a long way towards masking the film's flaws. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer looks sharp; the slightly drained color scheme is given strong balance, and there are no perceivable image flaws (unless, of course, you consider the activities that happen on screen "image flaws"). The 5.1 Dolby audio track is actually far more interesting than some recent higher-profile releases—it's atmospheric and energetic in a film that is neither. For reasons far beyond my realm of understanding, the disc is subtitled in no less than eight languages; apparently, there is a large demand for 3-Way in Portugal. A few bonus trailers—primarily for other sexually-charged-crime-thriller crapfests like Wild Things 2 and Cruel Intentions 3—are also included.
Save for the allure of Ali Larter's backside, 3-Way has nothing new to offer the world. There are countless better film noirs, both classic (see the recent review of the film noir collection Shadows, Lies, and Private Eyes) and contemporary (Blood Simple and Red Rock West come to mind)—not to mention better vehicles in which to see Gina Gershon squander her talent (do I even need to mention Showgirls?). Check out one of those and skip 3-Way—I've done the hard work for you.
The Court finds 3-Way guilty of false advertising, excessive stylishness, and bad casting, and hereby sentences that the film twist and turn in upon itself until it implodes. That oughta learn it.
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