No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Hardcore’ (1979)

Paul Schrader’s 1979 film “Hardcore” is one I have been meaning to watch for years. Many of my film friends have sung its praises, and I have been a big fan of Schrader’s work both as a screenwriter (“Taxi Driver”) and as a director (“First Reformed” and “Patty Hearst” among others). Regardless, this quickly became one of the many films I kept promising myself I would watch but never got around to it. But then one evening, I saw it was playing at the Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles, and I realized the time had come to finally give it a look. Besides, this might be my only chance to see it on the silver screen.

“Hardcore” opens up on Christmas in Grand Rapids, Michigan to the tune of Susan Raye’s “Precious Memories.” Schrader quickly settles us into the peaceful and family-oriented environment which looks to be filled with church-going people who love and fear God in equal measure. You just might mistake it for the average Norman Rockwell painting which often gave us images that were all too wholesome to be believed. Everything looks to be together on the same page while singing faith-based songs and sharing in traditional ceremonies without question. Of course, it’s scenes like these that make me wonder when the cracks in this atmosphere will begin to show.

The main character of this piece is Jake Van Dorn (played by George C. Scott), a well-to-do businessman with strong religious beliefs. Originally, this part almost went to Warren Beatty, but as great an actor as Beatty, he would have been wrong. Scott is perfectly cast as he has the face of someone with deeply held beliefs to where questioning them could be hazardous to your health. Eventually, you know these beliefs will be tested in the extreme as the title “Hardcore” refers to more than the sexuality on display here.

Jake’s peaceful existence becomes undone when his daughter Kristen (Ilah Davis) goes missing while on a church-sponsored trip in California. He enlists the help of the police, but after seeing all the photos on the wall of missing children, some of who still haven’t been found in years, he decides to hire a private investigator named Andy Mast (Peter Boyle) to dig a little deeper. But what Andy finds is something Jake never could have expected nor be the least prepared to deal with.

Watching Jake view a porno film in which his daughter Kristen is having sex with two men is an unnerving scene as Scott portrays a deep shock and grief which illustrates the living nightmare any parent would be thrilled to avoid. While it threatens to contain, as Ralph Garman and Kevin Smith would call it, “exquisite acting,” and the scene has become an infamous meme for many, I am curious as to what depths Scott dug to capture such an unforgettable moment of devastation. Such a scene is impossible to erase from the memory once it is viewed, and it comes to inform the relentlessness and anger he will come to experience up to the movie’s end.

From there, Jake ventures into the seedy underworld of Los Angeles, or the one which existed back in the 1970s. Like “Taxi Driver’s” Travis Bickle, he is “God’s Lonely Man” as he ventures into a place he does not belong. His brother-in-law tells him early on that God is testing him, and it is clearly the case as ventures deeper and deeper into the city’s sleazy subculture where there are an endless number of sex shopkeepers, adult theaters, and massage parlors that do more for their clients than a simple rub down. At one point, he even disguises himself as a pornography producer in an increasingly desperate effort to find his daughter, and I kept wondering if and when he might give in to temptation.

“Hardcore” was Schrader’s second film as a director, following his brilliant debut with “Blue Collar.” As with “Blue Collar,” he had quite the time wrangling his cast. Scott was said to have not gotten along with Schrader, and at one point promised the director he would finish the film only if he vowed never to direct another motion picture ever again. Well, we know Schrader promised Scott just that to get him back on set, but thank God the filmmaker never followed through on his word. This is just as well as we still had other films like “American Gigolo,” “Cat People,” “Light Sleeper” and “Affliction” to look forward to.

Indeed, this is a film that could have been upstaged by its behind-the-scenes drama which, in addition to Scott’s behavior, included an ending forced on Schrader by the studio. Indeed, the ending is “Hardcore’s” biggest flaw as it doesn’t jibe well with all which came before it, and it feels lazily staged with a shootout that feels tacked on above all else. It is thanks to Scott’s performance in the final moments that I am willing to forgive the conclusion as he keeps it from ringing completely hollow.

Still, I think “Hardcore” is a triumph for Schrader as it allows him to dig deep into themes he has explored in his many works such as the conflict between man and immorality. Moreover, there is authenticity on display here which would be hard to find today as Schrader managed to gain access to real-life sex houses and adult theaters to where there is no doubt we are dealing with the real thing and not just some cheap set. Certain sticky stains on the windows make this abundantly clear by the way.

Looking at the credits, Schrader had quite the crew to work with. The film was executive produced by John Milius who remains one of the best screenwriters ever, the score was by Jack Nitzsche who helps add even more of a lurid feeling to the sights Jake is forced to take in, and the cinematography was by Michael Chapman who performed visual wonders on both “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull.” Seriously, the color palette Chapman uses here aids the story considerably, and I cannot help but believe it greatly influenced the later works of Gaspar Noe and Benoit Debie.

I enjoyed Peter Boyle’s performance as private detective Andy Mast as he makes this character look all too comfortable in a city that thrives on decadence than what might appear on the surface. Even as Andy gives in to his baser needs and desires, he knows how the story is going to end and makes very few apologies for who he is. While the ending feels a bit too similar to the one from “Chinatown,” Boyle makes it work as his dialogue rings very true in a cynical and sad way.

But another performance worth singling out here is Season Hubley’s as Niki, a prostitute and part-time adult actress who aids Jake in his search. The scenes she has with Scott represent the best “Hardcore” has to offer as their dialogue regarding both sex and religion illustrates their differences and similarities in ways only Schrader could have pulled off. She fully inhabits this character to where I never doubted how much of a survivor Niki was and will continue to long after the end credits have finished.

Like William Friedkin’s “Cruising,” “Hardcore” is a journey into a subculture that no longer exists in today’s world. These days, it is much easier to gain access to pornography through the internet, and it makes me wonder how Jake would deal with a similar situation in today’s world. Things would be a bit easier to trace, and that’s even though some lost children might forever stay lost (please feel free to prove me wrong on this). As devoutly religious as Jake is, I imagine in a time where the world wide web and cell phones control our lives more than ever, he would most likely be more isolated and closed off from those around him than ever before.

“Hardcore” is indeed classic Paul Schrader even with its inescapable flaws, and I have no doubt “8MM,” the 1999 film directed by the late Joel Schumacher and written by Andrew Kevin Walker, would not have existed without it. “8MM” also pales in comparison to it by the way. I look at movies like these and wonder why studios won’t leave the filmmakers alone in making them. You know how dark the material was when you started funding the project, right? So why insult everyone’s intelligence by trying to make things a little less dark?

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Trainspotting 2

Trainspotting 2 poster

I actually found myself getting choked up while watching “Trainspotting 2,” a sequel I long believed would never become a reality. The original 1996 film featured youthful characters bursting with life as they inject heroin into their veins and create chaos for everyone and each other. Now it’s 20 years later, and these same characters are now middle-aged and struggling with a future which looks to leave them behind. They are dealing with regrets which eat at them, and are still stuck in a past which constantly gnaws at their conscience. While I can’t say I relate to all the adventures Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie have gone through, I can certainly relate to their current state of mind as their lives are at an impasse to where they have to ask themselves the question David Byrne brought up in a Talking Heads song, “Well, how did I get here?”

When we last saw the “Trainspotting” gang, Renton (Ewan McGregor) had absconded with the money they scored through a heroin deal, and he was determined to go straight and engage in a much more stable lifestyle. “Trainspotting 2” starts with him running on a treadmill only to trip and fall, and it’s enough to show he is not the same man he was before. He has lived in Amsterdam all this time with his wife, but now he is getting divorced and finds his job security to be very shaky, to say the least. Feeling lost in modern society, he decides to return home to Edinburgh, Scotland in an effort to make amends with family and friends.

Everyone is still back in Edinburgh doing their thing. Sick Boy runs a bar which is lucky to have many, if any, patrons walking through the door. In his spare time, he engages in blackmail schemes with his partner and girlfriend, Veronika Kovach (Anjela Nedyalkova). Daniel Murphy/Spud is still in the throes of his heroin addiction which has long since estranged him from his partner Gail and their son Fergus. As for Francis “Franco” Begbie, he has been in prison all this time and just received news that his parole did not go through. So, like any pissed off inmate, he escapes and heads back to Edinburgh to get revenge on those who betrayed him long ago.

When “Trainspotting” came out 20 years ago, it represented a fresh burst of filmmaking energy and felt so different from anything else playing at your local cinema. Director Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge once again take the works of author Irvine Welsh, in this case his novels “Trainspotting” and “Porno,” to create a motion picture pulsating with an energy lacking in so many others out right now. The fact they can’t quite equal the energy of the original is not a surprise as many imitators came in its wake, and what was once subversive now feels much less so. But I think Boyle intended for this sequel to have a different energy for those reasons as things are different now for the characters and ourselves.

“Trainspotting 2” does traffic in nostalgia as several references to the original are made throughout, but it doesn’t get stuck there to where it comes across as a mere copy of what came before. Moreover, Boyle and Hodge show how these characters are stuck in a past they never fully escaped from. I also have to say it is daring of them to show these characters at this stage in their life as Hollywood is typically afraid of ageism more than they would ever legally admit. Just like in “Logan” and “Creed,” we are forced to see what the winds of change have done to those we grew up watching, and it isn’t always pleasant.

It’s great to see Ewan McGregor back working with Boyle, Hodge, and producer Andrew Macdonald. McGregor and had a huge falling out with Boyle when the director handed the lead role in “The Beach” over to Leonardo DiCaprio instead of him, and the two ended up not talking for years. Well, whatever happened is now water under the bridge, and it would certainly be unthinkable for Boyle to replace McGregor with another actor. While Renton has suffered through years of regret and decreased vitality, McGregor still brings much of the same boundless energy to the character as he did before. It’s also a thrill to see him engage in one of Renton’s “Choose Life” speeches, especially since it takes on a much more emotional dimension than ever before.

Jonny Lee Miller continues to bring a wonderfully perverted energy to his portrayal of Sick Boy as his criminal exploits are fueled by bitterness and large doses of cocaine. I was especially taken in by Ewan Bremmer’s portrayal of Spud which is funny and heartbreaking all at the same time. We are constantly reminded of how Spud is harmless to anyone but himself, and Bremmer makes the character’s ever so wounded pride all the more palpable throughout.

My hat is really off, however, to Robert Carlyle as he makes Begbie every bit as explosive and lethal as he did 20 years ago. Some actors lose their edge as they get older, but not Carlyle as Begbie is still a volcanic force of nature you best not be around if you value your physical well-being. At the same time, the actor brings an honest vulnerability to the character which is both unexpected and wrenching. It serves as a reminder of how much acting range Carlyle has. Remember, he went from playing Begbie to playing a loving father in “The Full Monty,” and I had to keep pinching myself to realize it was the same actor playing both roles.

In addition, I enjoyed Anjela Nedyalkova’s performance as Veronika, a working girl who sees right through all the men around her and gets to the truth they have yet to realize for themselves. She brings a confident and sassy energy to this sequel, and she is a strong addition to this strong quartet of actors. It was also nice to see Kelly Macdonald reprise her role as Diane who has since become a lawyer. She kept stealing the show from her male co-stars in the original, and she does it again here.

They say you can never go back, but “Trainspotting 2” shows you can, but never all the way. There is a mournful feel to this sequel, but it’s there for good reason. In watching these characters wonder how they ended up at this point in their lives, we are forced to examine our own lives and wonder how we got here. It’s an unnerving prospect for a movie to offer its viewers, but I’m glad this one did even though it almost left me on the verge of tears. There needs to be time for a re-examination of our lives and desires, and we have to find a way to make peace with our past. Boyle and company understand this, and they never back down from exploring these emotionally complicated themes.

The cast and crew of “Trainspotting” have given us a very worthy follow up to their original masterpiece, and it is backed up by strong acting, a kick ass soundtrack, and the invigorating visuals we can always count on Boyle putting up on the silver screen. Yes, “Trainspotting 2” was well worth the wait, but be prepared for it to take a piece out of you. And remember what Renton says: Choose life and be addicted to something good.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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