Mike’s Murder

February 10, 2012

Mike’s Murder was the title of a film that writer-director James Bridges (of The China Syndrome and The Paper Chase) shot sometime in 1982, starring the actress he had lifted to national prominence via her performance in Urban Cowboy: Debra Winger.

Mike’s Murder is also the title of a film that is finally being released in a few test markets around the country. It’s written and directed by James Bridges. It stars Debra Winger. But according to Hollywood whispers (and some published fact), this Mike’s Murder is far from the same film that Bridges and Winger conceived a few years ago.

Evidently, Bridges’ first version was a disjointed, stylized tale of a murder and drugs in Los Angeles. Its narrative was nonlinear; events skipped back and forth in time.

This was odd enough in itself, because Bridges has always been a pretty conventional director—sometimes irritatingly so.

There were also rumors that the subject matter of the film made some Hollywood people nervous. The source of this anxiety can be summed up in one word: cocaine. We’re always hearing that coke use is rampant in the movie and TV business, and it’s a subject that the industry would just like everybody to shut up about. Mike’s Murder is about petty cocaine dealers; might Bridges have been pursuing some allegory about drugs and their soul-stealing effect on the movie folk?

Maybe. We can’t know now, because this Mike’s Murder is a jumble of half-ideas, some of which may not have been so good in the first place. Bridges re-edited the film so that it moves in linear fashion, and some reports suggested that he had reshot new scenes. He also replaced Joe Jackson’s music (some songs remain) with a more traditional John Barry score.

The plot is slight: Betty (Winger), who works in a bank, runs into an old lover, Mike (Mark Keyloun), who has fallen onto hard times as a drug dealer. The old attraction is still there, though, and they arrange a date to meet.

He never makes the date—he’s murdered when he and his partner (Darrell Larson—a striking performance) try to double cross their rich clients. Betty then tries to find some kind of reason for Mike’s death.

The film moves in fits and starts—the re-editing process has apparently played havoc with whatever rhythms Brides was trying to achieve. It’s halfway over before it seems to get started, and even then never quite decides what it’s going to be. The final 20 minutes or so are particularly distasteful, as one character—who seemed rather interesting—terrorizes Betty in her house. The bigger fish get away, and the mystery remains unsolved.

Bridges, using lots of video screens and phone conversations, does get a sense of the disjointed, emotionally dead world of Hollywood. His cinematographer, Reynaldo (Risky Business) Villalobos, really captures the smoky texture of the city.

As for Winger, who is, apparently, responsible for the current test engagements, she is still one of the most exciting actresses in film. But her irrepressible emotionalism is almost getting to be stock. She has a wonderfully expressive face and voice, but she’s overusing her gallery of effects—a good director will turn her energy inward a little more (the better to save it for when it really counts). It would also be nice to see her tackle a brassier character—a la her hooker in the immediately forgotten Cannery Row—than the string of passive women she’s played of late.

First published in the Herald, September 25, 1984

Kind of a weird review; speculation about the cocaine angle, me giving questionable advice to Debra Winger. I interviewed Winger onstage once and found her bright and honest and personable, even while sitting around the green room for a rather long time beforehand. I admit I’m curious about what this movie might have been, even if the prospect of a James Bridges masterpiece seems a little far-fetched.