[bloody hell, things got a little crazy at Goat Central last night, so there’s some catch-up to be played. Apologies!]
Mona Lisa (Neil Jordan, 1986)
I watched Mona Lisa towards the end of December, after I had set the first draft of my Best I Saw list for 2013. When I was finished, I immediately went to that list and had to rearrange it. Neil Jordan took the British gangster film (and he was serious about making sure people knew it was a British gangster film, to the point of casting the British gangster film stalwart, Bob Hoskins, the Ray Winstone of the eighties), added some of that Neil Jordan magic that few people recognized that early in his career (Mona Lisa was Jordan’s third feature), and came up with something that simultaneously revelled in being a British gangster film and something that was also totally new. I’m not sure there is such a thing as the definitive British gangster film, and if it does exist, I’m certain it happened well before 1986. Besides, Mona Lisa breaks far too many molds to be a definitive anything… and yet, somehow, it is, a quick, genre-bending, exceptionally intelligent piece of work.
George (Hoskins) is a small-time mobster who has just been released from prison for a crime he didn’t commit—he took a fall for his boss, Mortwell (Michael Caine), who’s now avoiding him. He tries to pick up a bit of make-work until he gets back in good with his old mob, and Mortwell, through a proxy, throws him a bone as the driver for a high-class courtesan, Simone (The Serpent and the Rainbow‘s Cathy Tyson in her feature debut). The two of them have some rough edges to get through, but eventually end up bonding. Once that occurs, Simone asks George for a favor—she promised a fellow courtesan that she would look after her, and the two of them have lost touch over the years. Could George find her? And thus, the mobster becomes an amateur detective, leading to a sequence that’s equal parts comedy and homage to Taxi Driver.
See what I mean about genre-bending? That’s a tough thing to do, and the more movie I watch the more I understand how tough it is, but Jordan handles everything he tries here with aplomb. Every decision here was made correctly, from casting to camera angles, with one arguable exception (it is obvious, given that a section of the film is a full-length rendition of the Genesis song “In Too Deep” over a montage of George doing his sleuthing, that the studio paid highly for the song and damned well meant to fully showcase it). It is perhaps not a perfect film, but if it is not, is is about as close to one as I have seen in quite a while; this is fabulous filmmaking, and it doesn’t matter what genre you are most into, you are likely to find a bit of it here; this is a movie that by rights should have appeal to the widest swath of filmgoers of any I have seen in many years. **** ½