Mike Figgis, wherefore art thou?
For those of you who don’t recognize the name, Figgis had himself a nice little cinematic run for about a decade, his first success coming with 1988’s satisfyingly noirish Stormy Monday, which starred Melanie Griffith’s fiery red, downright explosive 80s hair (coiffure soon to be overshadowed by her turn in Working Girl), a very young Sean Bean, Tommy Lee Jones and, yes, our favorite history teacher turned golden rock God, Gordon Matthew Thomas “Sting” Sumner**:
Aren’t familiar with that one? Then maybe you know Leaving Las Vegas (1995), Figgis’ lauded downer of a film in which we’re treated to 112 minutes of Nicholas Cage and Elizabeth Shue convincing the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that playing a suicidal dipsomaniac and a high-priced call girl, respectively, were Oscar-worthy pursuits. (Cage succeeded, whereas Shue had to settle for a nomination.) Figgis, quite the Renaissance Man, not only wrote and directed the film, but also composed its score, the same triple-duty he’d performed for Stormy Monday.
And so by the time the 1996 Academy Awards wrapped up, the twice-nominated Figgis (adapted screenplay and directing for Leaving Las Vegas, neither of which he won) found himself in an enviable position: pretty much everyone in Hollywood wanted to finance his next movie. Any project was his for the taking. But you know what happened? Figgis decided to follow his muse. Never comfortable within the studio system and growing bored of conventional filmmaking techniques, he began making low-budget experimental films utilizing then cutting-edge digital video cameras and related technology. Thus we have movies like Timecode (2000), Figgis’ star-studded, largely improvised ensemble “shot simultaneously with four cameras,” as explained by Wikipedia, “all in one take and also presented simultaneously and uncut, dividing the screen into four-quarters.” It gives me a headache just thinking about it:
So much for Figgis’ promising film career. By the middle of the first decade of the new millennium, he’d basically fallen off the A-list map. A quick search reveals he’s still active in experimental filmmaking, does the occasional commercial and is a professor of film studies at a graduate school in Switzerland. As my grandmother used to say, “To each his own.”
Between his Stormy Monday debut and his Leaving Las Vegas triumph, Figgis directed another movie, 1990’s Internal Affairs, which will be the focus of this post. Despite solid reviews (Siskel and Ebert: “Two thumbs up…way up!”; Spy magazine’s film-critic-at-large Walter Monheit, in his Blurb-o-Mat™ capsule movie review: “Four monocles!”) the film wasn’t able to get any traction at the box-office and quickly disappeared from view, no doubt partly attributable to its unseemly subject matter (bad cops, predatory sex, murder, etc.) and a January release date, the month where movies go to die.
The film opens at night on three patrolmen–Dennis Peck (Richard Gere), his partner, Van Stretch (William Baldwin) and another officer, Dorian Fletcher (Michael Beach)–covertly entering a house to make a drug bust. In the confusion that follows, Fletcher shoots dead a fleeing suspect. Turns out the perp, although carrying drugs, wasn’t carrying a weapon, making the use of deadly force a no-no. Peck plants a switchblade on the dead guy to get Fletcher off the hook. Or is it that he sees a Godfather-like opportunity to have the guy in his debt?
We’re next introduced to Raymond Avilla (Andy Garcia) as his new boss, Jaeger (Ron Vawter), welcomes him to the Internal Affairs Department. “Internal Affairs is the most important division on the force,” notes Jaeger. “We’re the cops of the cops. We set the tone. Therefore, every IAD officer must avoid not only evil but the appearance of evil. If cops are better than other people we have to be better than other cops. L.A. consistently has the cleanest major force in the county. And that’s because of us. Contrary to popular opinion, the officers in the field don’t resent us. They’re glad we’re there. Because we keep the force clean, they have the respect on the street they need.” Avila listens to this with the slightest smirk on his lips; he obviously knows Jaeger is full of it. Cops despise IAD.
Avila is introduced to his new partner and training officer, Amy Wallace (Laurie Metcalfe) and the two get right to work, following up on a complaint filed against Van Stretch, who, it’s revealed, was buddies with Avilla at the Police Academy. It seems Van Stretch has been accused of pulling over a junkie, beating him up and planting a bag of coke. If this sounds a little far-fetched for someone with Baldwin droopy-dog, wouldn’t-hurt-a-fly-face…
…one only needs to refer to the previous scene, which featured Van Stretch beating his wife in front of their kid before Peck, swinging by to pick up Van Stretch for work, intervened. “You get yourself together,” Peck says, menacingly, after slapping Van Stretch silly. It seems the people under Peck’s thumb better keep in line.
Arriving at Van Stretch’s precinct, he and Avilla greet each other warmly. However, when Van Stretch introduces Avilla to Peck, the two glare at each other with icy suspicion.
The further Avilla and Wallace investigate of Van Stretch, the more they realize the real bad guy may just be Peck. After all, he has three ex-wives, eight kids (ninth on the way) and yet lives pretty high on the hog (big house, sweet vintage Corvette) despite what must be crushing alimony. And then there’s the fact that Peck resists all promotions; he prefers walking the streets as a beat cop. Why, exactly? Gradually it’s revealed that he’s beyond bent. Despite his roguish charms and Richard-Gere good looks, Peck is an amoral sociopath and something of a crime boss. Here’s a guy who’s only too willing to plant knives; launder money; commit fraud and tax evasion; cruelly manipulate fellow officers; protect and, at the same time, skim from, prostitutes and pimps; engage in murder for hire; strangle a wounded fellow cop in cold blood; sleep with his partner’s wife and make threats to do the same to Avilla’s if the IA officer doesn’t quit poking around. This is one bad dude. And yet, except for Avilla and Wallace, he has the entire police department bamboozled. They think he’s a great guy, “one of the most productive cops on the street.” Furthermore, those in cahoots with him absolutely refuse to testify against him. Peck’s reach within the underworld is too vast to mess with unless you want to end up dead.
Despite so many obstacles, Avilla and Wallace won’t be put off their investigation. However, as they tighten the screws on Peck, he’s able to reverse the process, manipulating Avilla by playing on the IA officer’s guilt at spending so much time on the job that he has little opportunity to be with his beautiful wife.
As with all movies of this genre, squibs eventually explode in a tense denouement. Who survives? You’ll just have to rent the movie.
Much like Travolta in Pulp Fiction, Internal Affairs marked something of a reclamation project for Gere, whose career had begun to crater not long after his An Officer and a Gentleman success, the slippage brought on by agreeing to star in such crapola as Power and King David. His charismatic turn in Internal Affairs pumped new life into his brand, however. Peck is the ultimate creep, the embodiment of sexualized evil, a badass nonpareil. I can’t imagine Gere’s performance didn’t go a long way in getting him that iconic Pretty Woman part. (Pretty Woman sucked, by the way. Just thought I’d let you know in case you thought otherwise.)
Garcia, on the other hand, didn’t need reclamation. Already an up-and-comer via his supporting roles in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables and Ridley Scott’s Black Rain, Garcia’s stock would only rise further with solid performances in this film and, later that year, Coppola’s The Godfather Part III.
Throughout the movie the two actors only have a handful of scenes together, but when they do share the screen the tension is palpable. The first involves a meeting between the two at a late-night taco stand…
…where it becomes clear that Peck is every bit as menacing as Avilla first thought. The second involves an encounter in which Peck, feeling Avilla breathing down his neck, further antagonizes the IAD officer by intimating that Avilla’s wife (Nancy Travis) is being neglected sexually and that he–Peck–would only be too happy to step in, set things right.
This leads to a good, old-fashioned butt-kicking, the victorious Avilla tossing a hankie at the fallen Peck, telling him to clean up, a gesture that will be mirrored in their third encounter, this one involving Peck, now with the upper hand in terms of manipulation, beating the mud out of Avilla in an elevator, the entire time boasting he’d had sex with Avilla’s wife. He then drops a pair of panties atop the recumbent Avilla, telling him to clean up. As Walter Monheit would say: “Oooof!”
As for the rest of the cast, it’s uniformly solid, a must, of course, for a dialogue heavy film.
I usually make fun of movies in this “…late-night HBO” series of posts, noting that they’re either so bad they’re good or so bad they’re bad. Internal Affairs is a different story. It’s solid modern noir film. Figgis’ direction is strong, the performances good, the script tight. Too bad it’s mostly forgotten. Definitely worth a look.
Internal Affairs is available on the various streaming services and the Conflicted Film Snob’s preferred format, Blu-ray.
Here’s the (very 80s) trailer:
**If you’re anything like me, you simply can’t get enough of Will Farrell pronouncing Sting’s name at the 2004 Academy Awards: