You know how some people say if they got to go back in time and do it all over again, they wouldn’t change a thing? Well, I’m not one of those people. I would do a ridiculous number of things differently, and space-time paradoxes be damned. Among the things I’d do differently, especially if I quantum leaped back to around 1986 or so, would be to tell myself not to be such a smug, condescending dickweed about my then-newly-discovered punk rock lifestyle. But what can you do? I was fourteen and high on self-righteous non-conformist fury, certain beyond any sense of doubt that I and I alone had it right and everyone else was a poseur or mindless drone. And nothing set me off with a more fiery passion than when some dreg of mainstream entertainment dared play at having some sort of punk rock street cred. Do they think they understand my world? Let me take you down to my world, baby, and show you what life on the wicked streets of Buckner, Kentucky is really like.
Yeah, maybe a bit much, but it’s the job of teenagers to be a bit much, and the job of weirdo teenagers to be insufferable know-it-alls. I’d also tell my younger self other things, like don’t throw out all those Star Wars toys and take better care of your teeth. But I lose myself in the honeyed backwaters of time travel. Point is, I was so busy in the 1980s being outraged and insulted and perfecting my disdainful sneer that I missed a bunch of things I probably would have enjoyed. I was busy being judgmental about anything that referenced punk rock without conforming to my ideal of what it was to be a non-conformist. So, in long-winded fashion I get around at last to the point: Slam Dance was one of those things, because it was called Slam Dance. What hell did those poseurs in Hollywood know about slam dancing? I mean sure, it stars Adam Ant and John Doe…but how punk were they? Not very! Right?
Tom Hulce, trying perhaps to crawl out from under the weight of Amadeus, stars as the man with the most “L.A. in the 1980s” name of all time, C.C. Drood. He’s a successful cartoonist with a slightly less successful personal life. Measured against the sort of creeps who usually inhabit these films, he’s a decent guy. He loves his daughter and is on polite speaking terms with his ex (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). Also, he has a sweet apartment straight out of a Patrick Nagel painting, and his best friend is Adam Ant, who owns the town’s hottest new wave dance club. So all in all life is OK—which is a terrible thing for life to be in a noir film of any decade. You’re just asking for it.
Sure enough, during a pleasant stroll one night, CC is kidnapped by a group of thugs who hustle him into the back of a car. They demand to know what he’s done with “it” and where he put what she gave him in the way pointlessly vague thugs are always demanding things in a pointlessly vague way of people who have no idea what they’re talking about. C.C. manages to escape, but after reporting it to the cops (X frontman John Doe and the always-welcome Harry Dean Stanton) C.C. discovers that he also happens to be a suspect in a murder case.
The cast and crew of Slam Dance are a veritable who’s who of “better known as” types working outside that for which they are better known (except for Harry Dean Stanton as a world-weary detective, which…that’s Harry Dean Stanton!). Hulce had recently won an Academy Award for his manic portrayal of Mozart in Amadeu, the role that stopped him constantly being thought of as “that guy from Animal House” and turned him into “that guy from Amadeus.” Director Wayne Wang was known for quirky, cultural comedy indy films like Chan is Missing and Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart. Screenwriter Don Opper was better known as the dim-witted hero Charlie in the Critters films. John Doe and Adam Ant were better known as punk rock and new wave band frontmen. Despite some shuffling of vocations and expectations, though, everyone knows what they are doing, which means Slam Dance ends up being a very solid entry in the 1980s neon-noir movement.
At the same time, no one is actually that far from where you’d expect. Wayne Wang played around with mysteries before, and the style he employed in Chan is Missing is evident here as well, albeit in sometimes unbalanced concert with the elements of the neo-noir crime film. Wang’s previous were pleasantly meandering, episodic, and character-driven. The plot was a secondary consideration to simply watching these people interact and go about their day. There’s a lot of that in Slam Dance, as we hang out with C.C. and his weird friends or watch our hero drift in a somewhat reactive fashion from one strange situation to the next—like when he’s mistaken for a criminal during his first visit to the police station and ends up handcuffed to a chair between two thugs trying to kill each other. Most of the people C.C. encounters are less noir grim and bleak and are more just quirky (but not overly so). In the end, it all feels a lot like a Raymond Chandler novel, where it was common for private eye Philip Marlowe to stumble upon so many bizarre situations and outlandish characters that both the reader and the author could easily forget what the actual plot of the book was supposed to be. In Wang’s hands, and buoyed by Hulce’s charismatic performance, these vignettes flesh out the world and make more believable this place in which very strange things happen.
Hulce is fantastic as a guy who tries to keep a sense of humor through a series of trying and increasingly bizarre circumstances, until the very real, very deadly nature of the game into which he’s unwittingly stumbled starts to push him over the edge. He’s not playing Mozart, but he taps some of the same manic energy during the scenes where he flirts with breaking down or just starts laughing because he can’t believe how screwed he has suddenly become. C.C. is hardly the doomed and self-destructive noir leading man we would have gotten in the 1940s or ’50s. Neither is he the sweaty, sleazy sort of lead that characterized so much of the ’80s neo-noir. His flashback scenes with Virginia Madsen are the most traditional throwbacks to classic film noir. They lack the playfulness of the rest of the movie. These moments layer on the sense of gravitas and doom one expects from the genre, as C.C.’s one dalliance with a woman who acts like a serious adult with serious adult issues comes back to haunt him in a way he could never have anticipated. These scenes remind the viewer that, despite Tom Hulce’s trademark laugh and bewildered smile, a lot of people in the story are suffering very depressing fates. He almost seems like a guy who wandered in from a different, more lighthearted movie and found himself surrounded by dead bodies and corrupt cops, with no idea how the hell to deal with it.
Don Opper’s script meshes extremely well with Wayne Wang’s directing style. I never would have guessed it from goofy ol’ Charlie from Critters, but I guess it turns out that sometimes actors (or screenwriters) are not the characters they portray. Between Opper and Wang, Slam Dance is a somewhat low-key affair that doesn’t wallow in sleaze (a la Brian DePalma) or despair yet still has a dark, sinister edge to it. I think it would have fit in well alongside some of the better examples of the post-Reservoir Dogs crime movies of the 1990s, which were similarly obsessed with offbeat characters and unusual scenarios, and were often similarly episodic in their structure.
As for the slam dancing — well, there’s one scene in Adam Ant’s club, and I actually like it. C.C., overwhelmed by the dangerous nature his previously normal life has taken on, loses himself during a concert and bounces around like a desperate, giggling maniac. Setting itself at least partially in the L.A. new wave and art-punk scene is what initially made me turn my nose up at it when I was a moron (these days, I am merely a dullard). Now, I think having a finger on the pulse of the underground — both in terms of plot and setting, but also in terms of Wayne Wang’s cred as an independent filmmaker (this was several years before his success with Joy Luck Club) — is one of the film’s biggest assets and one of the many things that sets it apart from the rest of the neo(n)-noir pack. Frankly, I’m surprised more people didn’t try punk-noir, as the off-the-beaten-path and insular nature of the sub-culture, as well as the sundry conceptions of it — both accurate and absurd — and its dangerous nature and provocative clothing, seemed custom-made for noir cinema. Frankly, Jello Biafra would have been an excellent film noir player.
Even though Slam Dance is not as well-remembered as the heavyweights of neo-noir movies (Body Heat, To Live and Die in L.A., maybe even Blade Runner if you want to cast the net that wide), it was one of the most forward-thinking (Hulce’s character even foreshadows the rise of the “endless adolescent” that is usually attributed to the 2000s. And I definitely stand by my assertion that more than many other films—even those actually based on his work—this feels like a Raymond Chandler story, especially during the finale when C.C. Drood is stalking around the private estate of a group of rich political figures in the Hollywood Hills. I think Slam Dance pairs nicely with David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, while not being quite as downbeat. I can get behind noir’s drive to turn despicable characters into anti-heroes, but it’s nice to hang out with a guy who is actually, well, nice. There’s a breeziness to the film that is, I think, keeping in perfect step with Hulce’s character, a guy who just can’t bring himself to seriously believe how serious the trouble is.