Film Review: The January Man (1989)



There are many Hollywood films that became obscure despite relatively big budgets and plenty of notable names in the credits. Sometimes it happened because they were made ahead of its time. Sometimes it happened because its authors stepped on toes of someone powerful. And some of such films became obscure because they deserved to become obscure. The January Man, 1989 crime comedy directed by Pat O’Connor is one of them.

The plot begins in New York City during New Year celebration. Young socialite Allison Hawkins (played by Faye Grant) returns home only to become strangled, becoming another victim of serial killer that had terrorised the city for a year. Bernadette Flynn (played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), her best friend and the last person to see her alive, happens to be daughter of mayor Eamon Flynn (played by Rod Steiger) who is infuriated by police’s inability to end the reign of terror. He summons police commissioner Frank Starkey (played by Harvey Keitel) and orders him to take extreme measure of bringing his brother Nick (played by Kevin Kline), firefighter and former police detective, to lead investigation. Brothers have difficult history, because Nick left police in disgrace, taking the blame for scandal that would have ruined Nick who also stole his girlfriend Christine (played by Susan Sarandon). Nick agrees to lead investigation, but under condition to use his room mate, a struggling artist Ed (played by Alan Rickman) as paid assistant. Nick begins investigation by questioning Bernadette and that encounter leads to two of them having affair. In the meantime, he gradually analyse the data of the previous killings in order to deduct who the killer might be and when and where he would strike next.

The most conspicuous detail about The January Man is the very strong and respectable cast. Almost all major roles are played by actors who won or were nominated for Oscars. Such ensemble could have provided quality, or at least great diversity of performances, ranging from over the top Rod Steiger to more introvert and minimalist Harvey Keitel. Unfortunately, the combination doesn’t work; the interaction between characters suffers from the same reason that ruined performance of otherwise effective main star Kevin Kline – abysmal script that made almost all characters one-dimensional, underwritten or, in the case of Susan Sarandon’s Catherine, completely unneeded. Script was written by John Patrick Shanley, highly respected playwright who had shortly beforehand written Oscar-awarded screenplay for Moonstruck. Its biggest flaw is lack of focus and inability to balance between conventional crime thriller and quirky comedy. Script suffers because Shanley apparently lacks sense of humour and thinks that merely using some slightly unusual detail in the scene or characterisation should be enough to make audience laugh – like, for example, brothers’ rivalry over the same woman; protagonist romancing the daughter of the most powerful man in the city; Ed having nude women pose for his paintings. None of the supposed jokes work, while the extremely convoluted modus operandi of the killer and the way protagonists deciphers it almost insults viewers’ intelligence. Irish director Pat O’Connor (who would later marry Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) apparently also has issues with comedic content; he probably wanted to make conventional thriller, but Shanley’s script forced him to deal with romantic and other subplots that make the actual crime case look like afterthought. Apart from the opening, which used real footage of New York City, The January Man is visually unimpressive film due to cinematography by Jerzy Zieliński. Musical score by Marvin Hamlisch is also bad and used at the wrong scenes (like the cheerful jazz tune which accompanies brutal strangling). The only people who would have reasons to watch The January Man are the fans of Alan Rickman who appears in his second film role and shows that, after brilliant debut as Hans Gruber in Die Hard, can play non-villainous characters. For anyone else this would be complete waste of time.

RATING: 2/10 (-)

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