Don Johnson, Virginia Madsen, and Jennifer Connelly Star in Overheated Thriller
DIRECTED BY DENNIS HOPPER/1990
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: MAY 4, 2021/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
As difficult as it may be to fathom, director Dennis Hopper imagined small-town Texas as a hotbed of poor decision making, selfishness, and outright immorality.
This was 1990, when the filmic niche known as “neo-noir” was hot, and actor Don Johnson was hotter. Granted, the sun had only set on his career-defining starring role on NBC’s 1980s trend machine Miami Vice the previous year, but as far as movie producers were concerned, that only meant that the periodical-cover king could now take their calls in earnest. Who can blame the Sexiest Man on TV of 1985 (crowned by US magazine) that his very first post-Vice outing was The Hot Spot, a Dennis Hopper-directed star vehicle that didn’t veer him terribly from the uneasy nature of “Sonny” Crockett. But it’s different enough. His Hot Spot character, drifter Harry Madox, actually comes across as more stable.
Madox is a tight-lipped, hard-to-read dude. He wanders into this dusty etched-in-ember Nowhereville, USA where everyone is sketchy and talks like a Raymond Chandler novel. He immediately takes a job selling used cars for affluent good ‘ol boy George Harshaw (Jerry Hardin). But, not before ambling through the strip club next door. (Oh look, it’s the local banker [Jack Nance]. What is he doing here…?) This is, after all, a ‘90s neo-noir- sex and sin are part of the package. In this regard, The Hot Spot makes certain effort to live up to its name from the get-go.
The Hot Spot wields the bygone gumption of using sex the way that many films use violence. It’s thrusty and in your face about it. Not graphically per se, but tonally. The damn movie demonstrates the courage of its convictions in this area throughout, particularly thanks to Madsen’s never-not-steamy portrayal of the enabled and domineering Dolly Harshaw, red-lipped wife of the owner of the used car dealership. The sultry and manipulative Dolly knows what she’s got, and she uses it freely and amply.
In a newly created video interview with the prolific Madsen, she reflects with weighted positivity on The Hot Spot. She goes on about the competency and support of then-re-emerging director Dennis Hopper, and how right he was when he reassured her that in ten years, she’d be able to view her own performance for the accomplishment that it is. At the time, she was convinced that she was weak in an otherwise excellent movie. She won’t tell you this part, but the opposite is actually true.
Though oozing with retro sunbaked style that never fails to be punctuated with slide-guitar-y drag (the music is by the likes of no less than blues and jazz legends as John Lee Hooker, Miles Davis and Taj Mahal), The Hot Spot doesn’t have the bite it thinks it does. Johnson, walled-up and up to something, is no Robert Mitchum. Jennifer Connelly, stretching her legs into decidedly adult territory, plays the only decent-seeming person in this dried-up burg. She’s nineteen playing nineteen, looking as out of place and unsure as her character is. (“How’d a nice girl like you…?”) At a long two hours and ten minutes, the bland treachery of it all can’t hold our attention; not even with an early swaggering and slimy William Sadler performance. (He himself called the character “despicable”).
As cool as The Hot Spot works to be, none of the gimmicks (Sex! Crime! Sweet rides! Don friggin’ Johnson!) do the trick. Not anymore, at least. What does the trick these days is the name of Dennis Hopper, and his residual hipster cred (for lack of a better term). The man made Easy Rider for god sakes- the movie that rolled a counterculture hand grenade into Hollywood. That was after he spent time in the 1950s pallin’ with James Dean. The ups and downs of his life and career were the only sure things about them. The world will forever wonder if he was doing any acting at all in Apocalypse Now. Hopper’s Rasputin-esque madness in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet was yet another mile marker on his weird road to fringe immortality. Could he do no wrong? He did wrong aplenty. And yet, we remain compelled to look. And look… And look…..
Kino Lorber Studio Classics’ special edition of The Hot Spot pulls into town sporting a brand new 2K master that has been color graded and approved by cinematographer Ueli Steiger. The film’s been on Blu-ray before in lesser form; here though, it pops. The Texas warmth is palpable. The decay is tactile.
Besides the previously mentioned short video interviews with Virginia Madsen and William Sadler, we also get a new audio commentary by entertainment journalist and author Bryan Reesman. Strap in for this one- from the start, Reesman is off and running with the caffeinated determination of a man seven triple-shots in. He’s clearly overprepared and doesn’t want to leave any info on the table. Which is admirable, but it makes for a challenging listen, particularly as it runs in mismatched tandem with the languid movie. It’s like listening to a densely engaging lecture on double speed.
In true classic Noir fashion, the plot (if you wanna call it that) of The Hot Spot is anything but overt. It’s fine to wonder about the motives and morality of our protagonist- but we have to want to wonder about them. Johnson’s character might be a hero who saves people in a burning building, but he also might be the pyro who started the blaze in the first place. And if so, why? Does he truly love sweet girl Jennifer Connelly, or is she a prop? Does he even understand his feelings for her? And if so or if not, why is he carrying on with Madsen’s obvious femme fatale? Why is Connelly hanging around so much, anyway?? We have to be made to care about these things. And, well, it’s just not happening with these folks.
Primarily, The Hot Spot is known for its steaminess. But those expecting “wall-to-wall sex” (as a pre-release gossip blurb described it), will be just as put off as those who are uncomfortable with such elements in any movie. (For them, perhaps it’s best to drive past the 1990s neo-noir niche, of which this helped shape). Just how steamy is this neo-noir? Let’s just say that “X” doesn’t mark the spot, but a big ol’ red state “R” sure does.