Director Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” is aging as badly as the Aussie-fied mullet Robert Downey Jr. sports in the 1994 media satire.
Loud, brash and in your face, this collage of film stocks, styles and sensibilities made some critics squeal with delight during its 1994 release. Call that a chance to hop on the hip bandwagon, but looking back it’s clear “Killers” marked the start of Stone’s slow slide toward mediocrity.
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“Killers” follows the infamous Mickey and Mallory (Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis) as they morph from amoral killers to media darlings. The two start out as lovebirds eager to taunt and terrorize the innocent, always leaving one person alive to spread their legend. They aren’t the most well thought out criminals, and before long they’re behind bars for their atrocities.
Even violent criminals can pick up celebrity cache if they play the media just right.
“Killers” came of age during the O.J. Simpson case, the Menendez trial and the clown-like antics of Long Island’s own Joey Buttafuoco. So we can forgive Stone for feeling less than charitable about the state of media. But “Killers” is such an over the top affair, so bloated with stylistic excess and Pacino-esque ranting that nothing resonates beyond an overwhelming sense of “ick.”
A media satire by design can’t be done with a sledgehammer approach, at least if that’s the only tool being applied to the screen. Even the best action films have quiet spells, solemn moments when the audience can catch its breath and prepare for the next stunt-filled extravaganza.
“Killers” is all exclamation points and bold type. Attempts to humanize the murderous couple fall hopelessly flat. Can we really feel Mickey and Mallory’s pain just because they both suffered at the hands of abusive parents? Rodney Dangerfield appears in the film’s lone flash of brilliance. He plays Mallory’s lecherous papa, sequences arranged like a sitcom pilot from hell complete with laugh track.
Harrelson transcends the noise long enough to carve something novel out of Mickey’s wicked ways. The actor’s brutish charisma holds the film together, just barely, while Stone asks the rest of his cast to perform as if a pack of firecrackers had just invaded their skivvies. Those intrigued by Lewis’ bad-girl performance should rent the severely underrated “Kalifornia” for a better look at her curious screen presence.
“Killers” began as a screenplay by Quentin Tarantino, the pop culture junkie who later distanced himself from the production. We’re left to wonder what the “Pulp Fiction” auteur might have said differently than Stone, since very little of Tarantino’s patented wordplay made it into the final draft.
Robert Downey Jr. arrives mid-film to personify the soulless media vultures who thrive on tabloid trash. The future “Iron Man” nails the Steve Dunleavy accent – the Aussie reporter from “A Current Affair fame directly influenced Downey’s character. In a film teeming with one dimensional players, Downey’s reporter emerges as even more detestable than the titular “Killers.”
One can easily accuse Stone of glorifying the kind of violence he detests in the media as well as for letting Mickey and Mallory survive with their black souls unscathed.
“Natural Born Killers” arrived on Blu-ray two years ago along with scenes excised to ensure an R-rating. Such a bloated enterprise hardly needed more shock value. What’s left out here is the sense that Stone had something truly original to say other than, “I wish the media didn’t treat the Tonya Harding affair with the same intensity as the first Gulf War.”
It doesn’t take an Oscar-winning filmmaker to remind us of that.