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"Cammell's Wild Side - A Cut Above the Original"
Wild Side, Directed by Donald Cammell; reviewed by Simon-Astley Scholfield, 28 Aug 2000
Professional criminal, Bruno Buckingham (Christopher Walken), resides with his wife Virginia Chow (Joan Chen) in a luxury apartment suite in Long Beach, California, where he runs his money-laundering business. Bored with Virginia, he hires Alex Lee (Anne Heche), a high class $1500-a-night hooker (who goes by the name Johanna), for sexual therapy and stress relief. The gutsy Alex ends up psychoanalysing and tying Bruno up, such that he has to be rescued by his brawny assistant and chauffeur, Tony (Stephen Bauer). Tony, who like the others is determined to get what he wants out of life, takes a fancy to Alex when driving her home. He rapes her on her kitchen bench when she refuses his advances. Then, displaying his badge, he informs her he's an undercover cop, and that she must help him nail Bruno, because as he puts it, nothing or no one is going to wreck "my sting."

Alex, who performs the sex work at night to pay off the mortgage on her seaside home, is having trouble with the boss at her day job in a bank because (ironically) she wouldn't sleep with a client in order to seal a deal. When she phones Tony's police superintendent and complains that she's been raped by him, she's told that if she makes an official report her boss at the bank will be informed that she's been doing sex work. She won't risk this, and Tony knows it. He's found out about her day job and told Bruno who sends Virginia to meet Alex to open an account in order to launder his $169 million booty.

However, sexual chemistry is inflamed between the gamine Alex and gorgeous Virginia from first sight, progressing from compliments about shoes to a lunch date and kissing encounter, and then sex in Alex's bed. Of these love-making scenes, their first erotic touching in an orange room is particularly delicate and electric. Their lesbian trysts become the antithesis of Alex's violent and cold sexual interactions with men, while complicated by the fact that both women are sharing Bruno (and competing for his money), and that Bruno has fallen in love with Alex. Thus begins a tale of blackmail and intrigue.

The viewer needs their wits about them to keep up with the unexpected moves backwards and forwards in time; this chronological irregularity working well with the unpredictable actions of the characters. Occasional wry humour relieves the suspense. It's hard not to laugh when Bruno attempts to rape Tony at gunpoint as an act of vengeance for raping Alex. The macho "asshole" cop is ordered to put a novelty condom on his boss's erection, then drop his trousers and spread his cheeks wide, with Bruno declaring that what he's going to do to him "is not about sex, but about power."

In this part of his role as Bruno the tables have turned for Walken (who was raped by aliens in that notorious scene in Communion a decade ago), while his get-up in dressing gown and strange dyed-black pageboy wig is simply hilarious. Heche plays out her real life (bi)sexual history in her role as Alex (in a far more humane role than that afforded to her namesake played by Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction), while she also gets some great corny lines ("Actually, I'm a recovering sex addict, and I've just fallen off the wagon!").

The end scenes involve a clever and positive re-staging of the finale of Thelma and Louise. With its jaunty narrative style; rich ironies, machinations and double-crossings; colourful tacky hotel room settings; music by Ryuichi Sakamoto; cross references to other films; and consummate performances by a fine cast, this director's cut of Wild Side is a thoroughly engaging and entertaining comedy thriller right from the outset.

Wild Side
U Image, 1999.
Director: Donald Cammell.
Writing credits: Donald Cammell, China Kong.
Cast: Christopher Walken, Joan Chen, Steven Bauer, Anne Heche.
Soundtrack: Ryuichi Sakamoto.
Citation reference for this article
Simon-Astley Scholfield. "BIFF: Cammell's Wild Side - A Cut Above the Original" M/C Reviews 28 Aug 2000. [your date of access] .

2000, 2006 © Simon Astley Scholfield