Film Review: Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989)

in #aaalast year (edited)


Hollywood films tend to depict 1950s America with certain degree of nostalgia. Those that don’t usually aren’t Hollywood films in strictest of sense. One of those was international co-production which made Last Exit to Brooklyn, 1989 period drama directed by German film maker Uli Edel.

Film is based on the eponymous novel by Hubert Selby Jr. It is set in 1952 in Brooklyn working class neighbourhood, which is affected by exhausting months-long factory strike which exarcebate local moods as well as endemic problems of poverty, drug abuse and gang violence. Plot consists of interconnected stories dealing with number of local characters. Harry Black (played by Stephen Lang) is a labour union member put in charge of maintaining strike; such position inflates his ego and also allows him to start spending union money for personal use when he discovers his homosexuality. Tralala (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) is local prostitute who lures servicemen from nearby military base into being beaten and robbed by gang of local youths; after a while, she has something of a change of heart when she meets Steve (played by Frank Military), kind and naive young US Army officer who desires traditional romance before he gets shipped to war-torn Korea. Big Joe (played by Burt Young) is middle-aged worker who discovers that his daughter Suzy (played by Ricki Lake) is pregnant; when he finds that young worker Tony (played by Jason Andrews) is responsible, he spares no effort to convince him to do the right thing and marry the girl.

Selby’s novel, written in 1964, caused controversy due to the depictions of homosexuality, drugs, violence and rape and even got banned in United Kingdom for couple of years. Its content, however, wouldn’t look that shocking to today’s, more jaded, audience. The film might be another matter, because it was directed by Uli Edel, known for uncompromising depiction of teenage heroin addiction in his earlier film Christiane F.. In Last Exit, Brooklyn is depicted as dark and depressive place, full of desperate, lonely and impoverished people who often try to deal with their unhappiness through violent, ill-advised and self-destructive actions. Edel, who was apparently great fan of Selby’s novel, was helped by very good script by Desmond Nakano which managed to episodic structure of novel and its separate stories into more coherent and film-friendly format. Film is very violent and unpleasant, but cinephiles will appreciate Edel’s directing skill that handle transitions between various subplots with ease, as well as great cast. Stephen Lang is great in the role of tragic character who could get at least some sympathies from the audience despite some of his actions being more than questionable (irresponsible treatment of wife, embezzling union’s funds and attempting to seduce teenage boy while drunk). Jennifer Jason Leigh is great in another of the roles requiring to play complicated woman who is both sexual manipulator and victim of her own feelings. Burt Young, on the other hand, plays blue-collar character like so many he had played in previous years, but his performance is quite adequate. Edel, however, seems to be most interested in mass scenes, and the most impressive part of the film is brutal night battle between striking workers against company’s security and police. Unlike mainstream Hollywood, which never hid its enmity towards labour movement, Edel is clearly on the side of the union, and character of organiser Boyce, played effectively by Jerry Orbach, is closest this film gets to clear moral anchor. Last Exit, however, is slightly overlong and subplot dealing with transvestite Georgette (played by Alexis Arquette, who later became trans-woman in real life) isn’t best integrated into the rest of the film. Purists among the fans of Selby’s novel also complain about ending being too happy for bleakness that characterised the rest of the film. But, perhaps, this little intervention is exactly what was needed to make Last Exit to Brooklyn bearable.

RATING: 7/10 (+++)

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