Red is the Greyest Color in Derided Bruce Willis Erotic Thriller



“Men cannot write sex scenes.”  

Author John Grisham said that during his guest appearance on a mid-October edition of the NPR comedy game, “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!”.  If the statement is true, it stands to reason that men also cannot film them.  Not, typically, with any semblance of honest reality, anyhow.  It’s that old “male gaze” observation- older than the Hollywood hills, yet never not timely.  

For exceptions that prove the rule, one must venture abroad, to Gabriel Mascaro’s Neon Bull (Brazil), or even Lars von Trier’s Nymph()maniac (Denmark).  Veer off those courses, though, and you end up in France with Abdellatif Kechiche’s lightning rod Blue is the Warmest Color, or Sweden for… innumerable Swedish movies (a whole history of lurid “naturalist films”, and whatnot).  

Which brings us back to the aforementioned hills of Hollywood.  For a whole host of reasons, this good ol’ glitz n’ glamour dream factory is prudishly brazen when it comes to certain envelope pushing.  For better or worse, the American film industry is the last to catch up with most any outside trend, be they dance crazes, general social attitudinal shifts, or openness in terms of what goes on behind closed doors.  The latter almost always proves challenging, in order to depict and to watch.  In a movie business run by men, the dominance of the male gaze is embarrassingly reduced to a failed graze.  The meadows are ever-bountiful; yet indigestion is epidemic.  It’s not that there is sex, it’s that it’s ridiculous.

Jane March and Bruce Willis in COLOR OF NIGHT

Sometimes, then, you just have to embrace the ridiculous.  On rare occasion, it’s even better than the real thing.  Which brings us to the keyhole-shaped front door of director Richard Rush’s 1994 Bruce Willis vehicle, Color of Night.  Perhaps the biggest budgeted “Skinamax movie” ever generated by a major studio, Color of Night, a midrange thriller of the most extinct variety, is gloriously bonkers on nearly every front.  It’s the rare steamy erotic thriller that boasts not one but two major L.A. freeway car chases.  Everywhere anyone goes, the locations and set decoration is immaculate, with a heavy leaning into a certain skeezy, chic minimalism.  

Following a traumatic suicide of one of his patients in the very first scene, East Coast psychologist Dr. Bill Capa (Willis) flees his practice to find solace with a professional cohort in L.A. (Scott Bakula).  But, of course, Capa cannot flee his own guilty conscience, his tough words having triggered the patient’s forty story death plunge.  A constant reminder is the bizarre medical fact that as a result of such a trauma, he can no longer see the color red.

The film’s unintentional underlying notion is, if one is mentally fraying, then one might as well live it up however possible.  As such, the casually decadent luxury of Color of Night knows no bounds.  Scott Bakula’s psychiatrist character lives in a ridiculously huge mid-century modern house by the ocean. One wonders how a single man with one book published and a handful of clients maintains such a lavish lifestyle.  Then, throughout the course of the film, we see the only slightly less exquisite homes that each client lives in, and all becomes at least somewhat apparent.

It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there…

Once in L.A., it becomes obvious that all is not well on this coast, either.  Much of the film’s intrigue hinges on Bakula’s character’s group of regular patients, an antagonistic bunch with no discernible common thread other than Bakula believes one of them to be responsible for the continued death threats he’s been getting.  Though the screenplay can be criticized for any number of preposterous elements, its long winded introduction to this pack of supporting characters before that key fact is revealed, is perhaps its worst stumble.  While this not-short scene of these people sniping at each other while discussing their assorted issues drags on, one can’t help but wonder why the sudden detour away from Willis.  Had it been revealed upfront that one of them is likely the death threat suspect, their initial scene would be much more interesting to watch, as the audience could engage with Bakula’s fears.  As it stands, Color of Night, particularly the theatrical cut, has a degree of difficulty getting going.  Once it does, however, there’s a certain unrepentant craziness about it.

Those inclined to describe Color of Night as “over the top” need remember that tops come off too often in the film for their sentiment to be technically accurate.  Primarily, the tops in question are those of young Miss Jane March, a promising ingenue who had the sexy lead in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1992 film The Lover.  March is asked by the film to do a lot, and not only in terms of Color of Night’s infamously steamy sex scenes.  The filmmakers would have us say that only those who make it to the very end of this long-winded movie will know just how much March did in terms of multiple roles and whatnot- but this critic can’t vouch for their success in that department.  Certain physical features are simply too distinct.  By which I mean, her teeth.

Though the plot stops hard for the  sex scenes, one hesitates to call them “gratuitous” when they’re simply another part of a film where everything is dialed up to eleven.  When a key character is killed early on, he isn’t just murdered; he’s murdered as though he’s being murdered in a Dario Argento film.

“This sexy thriller needs another car chase already!”

One quickly finds oneself either willingly onboard with Color of Night, or aggressively not.  Its eccentricities are divisive to say the least, tipping heavily into “laughing stock” territory back in the day.  Even its running time is out of hand, wallowing all the while in its own completely unnecessary decompression.  Though put forth as a sexy, torrid affair, it’s well over thirty minutes before Willis’s love interest shows up, and almost an hour before their first romp.  Director Rush and screenwriters Billy Ray (also “Story by”) and Matthew Chapman make sure that their kettle’s been boiling a while before things get hot.

One recalls the entertainment press repeated circling then-super, duper mega-star Bruce Willis in regard to his repeated insistence that he ought to be able to show his penis in a movie.  As Color of Night rolled around, presumably affording him just such an opportunity, the bulk of the coverage seemed to zero in on “Little Bruce”.  (A no-show in the theatrical cut).  On one hand, such a shallow point of focus serves this movie just right.  On the other hand, though, there’s so many other elements, eye-rolling and otherwise, that are ignored in the run-amok interest of an absentee celebrity member.

For all that nonsense, Willis is not bad in the role of the broken man.  A bit out of his element to be sure, but then again, Willis does have an interesting, perhaps contradictory history on screen with the color red.  After he loses the ability to see red in Color of Night, wherein, it turns out, it represents emotional connection, it actively represents death throughout 1999’s The Sixth Sense.  A decade later, he’d be heading up a team of “retired extremely dangerous” operatives in a pair of light actioners where the titles themselves are RED.  While far from an altogether convincing psychologist in Color of Night, amusingly stumbling around words like “schizophrenia” (skits-O-frein-ia”) every now and then, the aspect of his character’s profession is merely weird in prospect as opposed to performance.  

It’s the old “rattlesnake in the mailbox” trick!

But, let’s not forget, this is Color of Night.  Moments of high drama and vital reveals are punctuated with quick pans to architectural stone faces.  Rubén Blades is an antagonistic police detective who scoffs his way through this case as though this sort of thing happens every day.  (“Someone planted a rattlesnake in your mailbox?  Haw haw, that’s rich!”)  A lesbian affair is treated as though it’s the very brink of carnality.  Overly-elaborate serial killer tactics are employed in the shocking stashing of murder victims, bodies popping out upon discovery for maximum jolt.  The whole crazy thing culminates in a showdown in some sort of abandoned industrial facility, and a preposterous climb up a preposterously tall tower, itself a massive steel phallus to the clouds- a fitting climax for this movie.  Is it possible that all parties involved knew exactly how preposterous this whole movie is?  

Actually… no?  Kino Lorber, having seen fit to get the full of a story behind the story, has released Color of Night as a two-disc special edition Blu-ray package, offering both the two-hour theatrical cut, and the eighteen-minute longer director’s cut.  Each cut has its own newly recorded optional audio commentary track.  The participants are equally forthright about their individually horrible experiences in making this maligned disasterpiece.  The theatrical cut is commented upon by the screenwriter Matthew Chapman, and moderated by filmmaker and critic Heather Buckley.  Conversational and at times strangely honest, this, of the two, is the go-to commentary.  Both Chapman and Buckley may not even know which cut they’re looking at (they admit as much quite late in the process), but it’s interesting all the same to hear Chapman come around on certain aspects of this film, a project he’d all but dismissed years ago.

There’s no shortage of blame to go around when it comes to an ill-received project like this, as evidenced on both tracks.  Chapman, a reserved, self-admitted sexually fascinated Brit, takes the opportunity to coolly denounce director Richard Rush (The Stunt Man).  Rush, on his track (a far more measured presentation which, in the beginning, he’s obviously reading), goes after mega-producer Andrew Vajna for recutting his picture.  Later, moderator Elijah Drenner nearly convinces Rush that the film’s nuttiness was deliberate.  Following his initial reading of his “official version” of what happened behind the scenes, the track takes on a far more relaxed and chatty tone.

Age difference, schmage difference.

Of the two versions, the audacious endurance test of the director’s cut must take special precedence for anyone who’s keen to bother with Color of Night at all.  Yet, in the case of this release, it’s actually the derided Andrew Vajna theatrical cut which warrants special mention.  It’s the steamier and all the more overstuffed director’s cut that’s been widely available for all these years.  Consequently, while the director’s cut packs a lot more bang in terms of content, the theatrical cut boasts the better transfer, accentuating the film’s grander-than-it-needs-to-be cinematography.

Can men film sex scenes?  Rush says that the fun and appeal of taking on Color of Night lies in making a sexy story, not in making a mystery.  So, once again, as is so often the case in the history of art, entertainment and just about everything else, the male gaze has run wildly amok.  In the case of this unwieldy, way-too-big cross between Vertigo and Basic Instinct, the sheer ridiculousness of such untethering from reality is nakedly laid forth.  Trash, yes. But gloriously unrepentant trash.  In moviegoing, where “the good trash” is an effectively rare thing, Color of Night remains in the running for the best trash.