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Angel Eyes

Director: Luis Mandoki
Cast: Jennifer Lopez, James Caviezel, Sonia Braga, Terrence Howard, Jeremy Sisto, Victor Argo, Shirley Knight

(Warner Brothers; 2001)

Freakshow

This just in: Jennifer Lopez has signed with NBC to star in a music special in the fall and executive produce a sitcom based on her life growing up in the Bronx. It might seem a strange career move, given all the ballyhoo about Lopez’s recent triumphs at the box office (The Wedding Planner opened well, despite bad reviews) and the music charts (J. Lo is still in play). But after seeing Angel Eyes, you might think again. In fact, her return to the small screen might be just the ticket for the former Fly Girl. That, or get some seriously good advice in selecting her next movie script.


As Sharon Pogue, Lopez is supposed to be a tough South Side Chicago cop, that is, she hammers back shots with the boy cops, but looks great in her white t-shirt while doing so. But while Sharon is good at her job, she’s also struggling with a few personal demons, having to do with her father Carl’s (Victor Argo) longtime abuse of her mother Josephine (a scandalously underused Sonia Braga). This history has inevitable effects on the next generation: Sharon’s construction worker brother Larry (Jeremy Sisto) abuses his pretty blond wife, and Sharon is herself inclined to “excessive force.” When she’s arresting a skinhead street punk and he calls her filthy names, wiggling his tongue in that charming way that movie street punks have, then asking her for “one sweet touch,” Sharon slams his skinhead against the cruiser repeatedly and twists his arm. Her partner Robby (Terrence Howard) looks on with a mix of awe and concern, as if he’s thinking, “Hmmm, this aggression is unwarranted and she’s messed up, but then again, foul-mouthed perps deserve what they get.”


Sharon’s troubles are familiar, for sure: she’s another in a long line of beautiful but damaged girl cops with domestic violence backgrounds. Recall Kathryn Bigelow’s relatively subtle Blue Steel, where Jamie Lee Curtis was dealing with a psycho killer as well as her co-dependent parents, or Diane Russell-Simone (Kim Delaney), queen of the melodramatic story arc in NYPD Blue (come to think of it, the beleaguered-alcoholic-widowed-abused Diane makes Sharon look like a crybaby). This sort of character tends to be harassed by everyone, not only big-lunky criminals, but also her co-workers and her “dates.” This point is made repeatedly in Angel Eyes: Sharon’s male buddies tease her about her lack of makeup (a bit that is patently ridiculous, because La Lopez is fabulously made up in every frame of this film), or in her anonymous pretty-boy date’s relentlessly vicarious questioning: what’s it like to be “out there,” to be “catching bad guys”? Sheesh, no wonder she heads home to her tiny apartment, strips off her slinky black dress, and slips into her snuggly kevlar vest—being a cop is her best defense against all the idiots who surround her. (The other, likely primary reason for this post-date image of Lopez in her underwear, of course, is to show off her bounteous beauty.)


But if Sharon sees her “masculine” deportment as self-defense, the movie is not about to let her off the gen der-bending hook so easily. No, the only way she can be truly happy is to learn to be a girl, vulnerable and soft, kind and endlessly forgiving. This is not to say that she hasn’t already absorbed plenty of stereotypically feminine attitudes. Sharon is certainly suffering from the passive-aggressive tactics of her brother and mother, who entreat her to “forgive” her father, but the real manipulative genius is Carl, unseen until near the end of the film and refusing to forgive her, because 10 years ago, she called the cops when he was beating Josephine. Sharon, good daughter that she is, feels bad, even though she sort of understands that she did the right thing. She’s unable to forgive herself for her confusion. That’s why she beats up skinheads.


If Luis (Message in a Bottle) Mandoki’s movie is about anything, it’s about healing. Sharon’s process is jump-started (not exactly convincingly) when she meets a mysterious, mournful-looking stalker named Catch (Jim Caviezel). Literally, he’s stalking Sharon, a stranger in a shabby overcoat with a penchant for watching her from across the street. During one such session, a driveby shooter takes out several cops in the diner where they’re eating. Unharmed, Sharon and Robby take off after the bad guys, running down the wet streets (all streets are wet in cop movies). When she’s subsequently ambushed in an abandoned building, Catch arrives on the scene just in time to save her from being shot in the head (though she is hit in that vest of hers, leaving a nasty and way-symbolic purple bruise over her heart).


She’s disturbed by this guy watching her, but also intrigued that he risked his life for her. And so she starts talking with him. If you didn’t have information that she doesn’t, you’d see this as a really terrible idea: Catch is pretty but he is clearly wacky. But you do know that he has a connection to her, formed a year previous to their meeting, when he was a car wreck victim whom Sharon saved by getting him to “stay with” her, by staying focused on—what else?—her “angel eyes.” This is actually the first scene in the film, though you don’t see Catch, only take his point of view, wandering over the cop car lights, almost going unconscious, then looking at those eyes before passing out in a great “white light” flash. Sharon has no memory of his face (it was dark and he was bloody, after all), so she has no notion of the connection. And so, it’s hard to make sense of her lapses in judgment once she hooks up with this guy, who’s part abusive, part ethereal, and part incomprehensible.


Catch’s car-wreck connection to Sharon is hammered home by repeated flashbacks to the accident scene. These flashbacks are usually intercut with some “difficult” present moment, of which he has plenty (his bizarre habits include going through Sharon’s underwear drawers and keeping his kitchen drawers full of kids’ action figures: when she discovers him in such situations, he acts like she’s the problem). You also see Catch’s current situation as Sharon does not: he lives alone in a dark, unfurnished apartment, and exchanges solemn glances with the little boy who lives next door to him in a shabby apartment building. These scenes, combined with those showing Sharon’s own haphazard personal life, suggest that Catch and Sharon are made for each other, two lost souls who might help one another, “fated” to meet in the way that a couple might be in a movie directed by Luis Mandoki, the man responsible for the preposterously goopy Message in a Bottle.


Once this romance begins, Angel Eyes‘s already minimal logic just goes all to heck. Catch starts to look like a nice guy unable to cope with diurnal details (like buying furniture), and Sharon abandons her previously established “instincts” (her tough-girl posturing and defensive isolation), falls in some kind of needy-love (indicated by a series of just awful pop-music-enhanced “romance” montages), and then sleeps with this guy. The romance structure suggests that theirs is a regular movie romance, each is allotted a confidante so you can hear what they’re thinking (because they couldn’t possibly tell one another what they’re thinking!) His is a woman in a wheelchair (Shirley Knight) to whom he delivers groceries and in whom he confides his happiness at meeting Sharon, as well as his nervousness about pursuing her. Hers is Robby, whom she tells about feeling horny, specifically, that she’s looking to “clean [someone’s] pipe” (man, she’s really tough!), feeling frustrated on the job, and even feeling confused about Catch. When Catch does behave badly—as he must because he’s so very sensitive and so very wounded—she tells her partner. Robby gets that “I told you so” look, then calls him “Freakshow,” and warns her to be careful.


The movie encourages you to share Robby’s sense of apprehension, representing Catch as if he might be otherworldly or at least unstable and untrustworthy, mainly through disjointed scripting (by Gerald Di Pego) and cinematographer Piotr Sobocinski’s dreamy, intensely subjective images. But the film is also working against a potential Ghost-City of Angels grain, trying to look at the more ordinary ways that people connect and disconnect, hurt and forgive each other and themselves. While this sounds like a good idea, Angel Eyes does not “stay with” it. Instead, it settles for wan formula.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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