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PROANTAGONIST: THE ECLECTIC NEO NOIR OF MATT DILLON

Matt Dillon in the Noir remake A KISS BEFORE DYING
THE RUMBLING OUTSIDER: Matt Dillon as the kind of face that seems perfectly suited for Black & White, even in color...

Rumble Fish Blues
For example, when he looks into the hospital mirror during the riskiest of many risky heists in DRUGSTORE COWBOY, his slick black hair contrasts dramatically to pale white skin and then, with the turn of his head, the blood red along his forehead accents the fevered heat of the moment... The sudden contrast is reminiscent of the actual Chinese fighter fish i.e. RUMBLE FISH, the only colored objects (red) in an otherwise completely B&W film, steals the picture in Coppola's first of the two S.E. Hinton collaborations beginning with THE OUTSIDERS as the James Dean/Marlon Brando hybrid: A rogue rebel completely idolized by the two young central characters played by C. Thomas Howell and Ralph Macchio... But to everyone beyond the gang, being a outright criminal as well as a charmer, if anyone of the cast of future teen heartthrobs (including Tom Cruise and Patrick Swayze) makes this otherwise teen gang melodrama, it's his character, Dallas Winston, who, unlike his ambitious RUMBLE FISH little brother character, Rusty James, doesn't want to be a leader or a follower...

RITCHIE: "A kid who tells on another kid, is a dead kid."
Lighting up The Outsiders
And, behind the scenes according to the Coppola commentary track of THE OUTSIDERS; while it took days, even weeks, for some of the other actors to be cast, Dillon walked in and got the job right away (both RUMBLE FISH and OUTSIDERS will be reviewed on their own territory with an upcoming "Coppola Does Hinton, Twice"). The former OVER THE EDGE "post child actor" was fourteen in his first role in 1979 where his bike riding, chain smoking Ritchie White is the Dallas Winston of the suburban outskirts, again leading the underdogs (whether he's present or not) to victory. But it was MY BODYGUARD the following year that proved Dillon could really act, and it took the second Coppola/Hinton flick to underline that fact...

Dillon's Noir Fetal Stage
RUMBLE FISH provided Matt's first vehicle that had a strong Film Noir vibe: With Dillon bathed in a stark Black & White Cinematography, surrounded by spooky alleyways, bleak avenues, a pale-lit park over a bridge to a busy ghetto main street where real pool-halls contrasted to the safe seat soda joint back home. And his girlfriend, played by his three-time starlet and perfect-fit, Diane Lane, lived in a house that Coppola's crew painted to look as if splintered with tree shade. FISH has an edgy, eerie pulse with a unique, classic, "old movie" aesthetic that would ignite a random string of Neo Noirs that, right from the start, he could play either the protagonist, the antagonist or someone caught in-between...

Matt took aim directing his own Noir with CITY OF GHOSTS
Which exemplifies the Noir characterization that Dillon not only looked a part of, being one of the few actors from the 1980's that would have fit perfectly in the 1950's, but he captured the overall template of the Noir genre, detailed here in the following list of projects covering a four-decade spanning career we'll call THE NEO NOIR OF MATT DILLON, ranging from movies that flirt with the genre and others, like CITY OF GHOSTS that he directed and co-wrote, embracing this (what many know as a) Crime Thriller template in full stride. Also, he recently catapulted a Fox TV serial titled WAYWARD PINES, even more intentionally Noir than its nostalgic David Lynch-driven influence, TWIN PEAKS. But we'll stick with cinema beginning with a complete howler that is, like howlers can be, extremely entertaining...

Matt Dillon in a Noir Remake Year: 1991 Score: ***
A KISS BEFORE DYING: A Film Noir, and not even arguably so, as it's based on an actual technicolor camp Noir/Melodrama that starred Robert Wagner. A more swarthy and tough looking Matt Dillon takes his place as a poor kid dating a rich girl... two, actually... Both played by Sean Young as the first opens the curtain in a violent yet unintentionally hilarious fashion...

Though he's always a cool cat to watch, Matt's performance is stilted and awkward while Young does all the work, and yet... to paraphrase Travis Bickle in TAXI DRIVER about Albert Brooks... her energy goes in all the wrong places, trying to steal this wooden soap opera as a rich girl with a vulnerable and independent side, and pretty much failing on both counts: Dating the guy who the audience knows killed her twin sister as she's completely oblivious. It stops being as entertainingly fun when she begins to catch on and, with the help of cop turned gumshoe James Russo, she moves in on the psychopathic beau, who's already well liked by her millionaire father. The best parts involve a slow-burn body count of deaths in his Dillon's wake, including an actress, Martha Gehman, who played his sister in THE FLAMINGO KID. So Bad It's Good, which is practically a genre in itself, describes this one best: a delightfully corny howler with a melodramatic twist and a soundtrack so loud and dramatic you can hardly hear the bad dialogue.

Year Released: 2002 Score: ***
CITY OF GHOSTS: The best thing about CITY OF GHOSTS is the location; a character in itself... That being Cambodia, where Dillon's con artist mentor, played by James Caan, is hiding out after swindling millions back in the States for insurance following a famously deadly hurricane. The DVD and Blu Ray box description reads that Dillon, too, is a con artist (conned by his mentor) and yet he's hardly established as anything beyond a personally disgruntled victim. Anyone familiar with DRUGSTORE COWBOY knows that Dillon has it in him to play a charming, cheating crook. So the Noir-Style ambiguity is lacking where it needs to be most: in the central "pawn" character.

GHOSTS is visually hectic journey through Cambodia and, after a while you feel part of the city, with its ragged streets and vast outland of marshes and paddy fields where, throughout the film, actual Vietnamese music provides an offbeat anti-score, successfully keeping the edge up for the audience and the character, both lost in an unfamiliar maze of corruption and greed. It's just too bad we never get to see inside the Pandora's Box long enough to know what's really buzzing around in there. Meanwhile, Dillon himself, as co-writer and director, relies too much on sparse dialogue that almost says something while the camerawork is either shaky or extremely close-up on particular characters — perhaps just to see how guilty that are. And the deeper he gets in, the more suspense the character feels. Since Dillon's a good actor, he wears the strain and stress with an edgy prowess befitting both the predator and its prey. Only there's simply too much left out in the script — which aren't plot-holes, exactly, but more like intentional gaps to tighten the mystery that winds up being more convoluted than successfully oblique. Still, though, for an arthouse experience, there's enough intrigue to keep the viewer curious about the outcome.

Year Released: 1987
THE BIG TOWN: This one's set during the 1950's, and Dillon really looks the part. A young, skinny, lucky dice player who miraculously hits the right numbers each and every time, giving the movie a sort of unintentional TWILIGHT ZONE vibe, or something delving into fantasy, and for a vehicle so otherwise grounded and somewhat predictable, that's a good thing. Matt's urgency (and the film's suspense) doesn't rely on winning but surviving the pool of sharks who, from Tommy Lee Jones as an underground backroom dealer to a mysterious Tom Skerritt, are out to stop the endless and bizarre winning streak...

The best scenes are during the first half when everything is breezy and easy since all the characters are developed as much as can be — not through dialogue or backstory but their sly manipulation to the sport of gambling, and thinking on their toes...

Yet TOWN is mostly known for being the third and final film Dillon starred alongside his RUMBLE FISH ingenue Diane Lane, which began with being goaded by him in THE OUTSIDERS. Much more grown up in looks and attitude, seeming more a connection to Francis Ford Coppola's uninspired COTTON CLUB than his Hinton adaptations, Lane provides a sexy and borderline sinister Femme Fatale as Jones's stripper trophy girl. Without the usual 11th hour gun, her danger exists on who she's cheating on while Matt could be throwing away the perfect girl in Suzy Amis — proving twenty-nine years after the demise of the Crime Genre that Film Noir good girls always have to weather hell before getting what they deserve, and who deserves them.

Diane Lane and Matt Dillon TOWNScore: ***1/2
A slow mid-section is made up for during the finale where Dillon must win — very similar to the more lightweight early-60's-set-comedy, THE FLAMINGO KID, in which he had to win everything with the skill of the game — cards there, and craps here. In either game, be it skill or chance, Matt Dillon, a minimalist actor to begin with, has the kind of poker face expressions that helps the suspense build without shootouts or car chases...

He's an actor that's been in a some good, great and downright terrible films, but he's usually good no matter. Even when he seems a bit slow to the punch, or too streetwise and stubborn to stretch beyond particular tough guy roles, he's got range within limitations. In BIG TOWN, it's a steady gaze across a long green table. And hell, maybe he'd have worked in COLOR OF MONEY if that other Outsider backed out.

Year Released: 2005
FACTOTUM: Right out of the gate, pun intended since Charles Bukowski drank a lot and bet on horses... both RUMBLE FISH brothers have played Bukowski's character Henry Chinaski, and while Mickey Rourke, who everyone knows is a far more eclectic and diverse actor than Dillon, relying on the method of Marlon Brando and James Dean in a sort of raw energy and hectic desperation, Matt's performance in FACTOTUM compared to Mickey's BARFLY role is far more subdued, and he seems more like a writer...

Befitting the Noir template of this post, Dillon is far more ambiguous, letting others sort of tumble and weave around him while Rourke is a trapped animal pacing a small cage, which worked since that kind of marrow is found within Bukowski's work, but at times he sounds like the cartoon, Snagglepuss, "Stage left, already," and well... there's nothing wrong with going over the top but Dillon's performance is as narrowed and pointed as is FACTOTUM, which, unlike BARFLY's screenplay intended for a film to begin with, is one of Bukowski's best novels, following a drunk and hopeless yet wonderfully optimistic loser from job to job, and job to job...

FACTFilmScore: ***1/2
The film's main problem is there aren't enough jobs to qualify as an effective adaptation to its source. Kind of sad because those are the best scenes while a spitfire of arguments with various drinking broads, mainly Marisa Tomei and Lily Taylor, seem forced and get tiresome: which Bukowski's novels never do. One great scene involves Dillon reuniting with his gambling buddy from FLAMINGO KID, that being Fisher Stevens as a workmate in... some job involving bicycles in a dusty warehouse...

Their time at the racetrack, if split into ten other scenes like it, would have made FACTOTUM stand out beyond the recognition from avant garde cinema enthusiasts and, like BARFLY, it would be remembered... Meanwhile, both films are Film Noir in their peak into the seedy nightlife with a character who's a glutton to everything, and yet shines beyond his demons and vices...

Dillon, with a tough guy voice that's kept him from playing sophisticated characters, is more than voice here as he's neither a tough guy or streetwise. He's just moping from location to location and seems untouched, which can be attributed to a decent script and a steady performance to match.

Matt Dillon plays the heavy in KANSAS Year: 1988
KANSAS: Matt Dillon as a sociopath con artist that meets a young man his age played by BRAT PACK nice guy Andrew McCarthy, on the way to a friend's wedding while Matt's character is going nowhere, slowly. Actually, he does have a destination. And once the title town's bank is robbed, during a crowded Main Street speech by the governor... played by the actor who played the cop that killed Matt in his first feature, the teen angst classic OVER THE EDGE — that being Cult Film Freak's friend and idol, Harry Northup... And soon enough, the boys, Matt and Andrew, get separated...

Mean Meantime
McCarthy hides the money and is the only person who knows the location, and works on a farm driving a combine and wouldn't you just know it — the farmer's daughter is downright gorgeous in an actress still pretty and working plenty, Leslie Hope...

Their romance is the young love melodrama that's semi-involving but nothing compared to Dillon's body count b-story, despite the fact he, being more famous at the time, was first billed: He does, in fact, completely steal the picture, and yet, as good as he is being bad, there's not given enough freedom provided in the script to really spread his demon wings, and the performance seems stilted and limited at times... Although, unlike his other loony Noir antagonist in KISS BEFORE DYING, he's neither melodramatic or hammy.

Dillon with gun, again in KANSAScore: ***1/2
Through Dillon's character — on a sort of body count killing spree while working at a fair, and waiting to find his "friend" with a clue to the bag of loot — the sparse location, that one famous character said there was "no place like", seems like a purgatory bleeding in the sun, and Dillon, once again, is the most effective without saying a word — letting his piercing eyes do the work in this neglected 80's programer that's an OVER THE EDGE reunion for a few more reasons than Bad Cop turned Smiling Politician Harry Northup: Produced by George Litto and also co-starring the always dependable character-actor Andy Romano, this is the kind of Film Noir that trades shadowy alleyways to sparse, rural daylight...

Kyra Sedwick connects Matt to Kevin "Wild Things" Bacon
Dillon's is the kind of role that a, say, let's see... Richard Widmark would have taken while Victor Mature would be kissing the good girl, who's actually quite a task for McCarthy, and his story shouldn't be mistaken for a Harlequin style throwaway. Both McCarthy and Dillon, though separated through about ninety percent, have a nice, tight chemistry of the good and the bad — and what also works is that the good guy isn't altogether perfect. He did help rob the bank and his twist is that, after hiding the loot, he saves the Governor's daughter and is finally revealed to be a national hero by an intrepid and, for some reason, limping reporter who's more of the parenthetical snoop than the cops here.

Year Released: 1989
DRUGSTORE COWBOY: By far Matt Dillon's best role, and performance. Although he was nominated for CRASH, which could also glide in the Noir category but we're too lazy to have to sit through it, his take on Bob, a mobile heroin attack with an eclectic "gang" robbing drugstores of anything opiate related, should have been nominated and even won because he goes outside the box, and then some. One scene, after he's done speed in-between heroin scores, is dead-on perfect... Avoiding his sexy girlfriend played by Kelly Lynch and only thinking of his next score makes Bob the kind of thief whose wheels are always turning: which goes for his car and his brain, one that's never quite settled down, unlike the rest of the bunch including a mellow dude in James LeGros and the gorgeous young ladyluck, Heather Graham, who turns out being anything but...

Matt Dillon & Kelly Lynch
One sequence was mentioned in the introduction, about the blood marked on Dillon's white, vampirish face, and the scene, where he goes from drugstores to a hospital, is, under the first time direction of indie maverick Gus Van Zandt, extremely intense and suspenseful...

The moment we've been discussing
Dillon's expressions, from the browlines to piercing eyes, speaks volumes without words and by far the greatest scene involves a trap on a cop that the group, with beers in hand from the safety of their apartment, watch as if it's the final game of the World Series. This is Van Zandt's most grounded feature... sort of what RESERVOIR DOGS has remained to Quentin Tarantino... yet there are still amazing arthouse visuals and sounds, like, after shooting up in a car, sitting in the backseat, he looks out onto the green-lawned suburbs and, before seeing images of objects floating in the air, from hypo needles to animals, a child passes on a bicycles and a bell goes off — as if intended just for Bob...

DRUGScore: *****
Things slow turn on purpose during the third act where William S. Burroughs, whose first book was titled JUNKY after his own experiences, provides a passive, mellowly lecturing "Colonel Kurtz" at the crest of what seemed like an endless river of scores and near-busts, dark streets and all those uninspired tagalongs who kept at it while Bob, going straight, and in working an abysmal, factory job, provides Dillon a complete arc: He's sober but not exactly clean. Wiser but not softer. And like many a Film Noir antagonist: definitely cursed, and possibly doomed...

IN CLOSING WITH GOLDEN GATE, WAYWARD PINES, WILD THINGS & A PAIR OF FAKE CHOMPERS: And really, truly, actually, that's not all. The Noir of Matt Dillon goes beyond even these films. For instance, in GOLDEN GATE he's a private eye during the 1950's, and the film, attempting CHINATOWN, falls rather flat but Dillon, visually, fits the part and would have been suited within that era of Brando, Dean and the likes. Meanwhile, his one-season stint on the TWIN PEAKS clone, WAYWARD PINES, which turned out being more of an X-FILES Film Noir, had Dillon as an agent figuring out a strange town that he seems to be completely trapped in, and boy it was great seeing him on a television series that started out awkwardly but picked up the pace, and again, as the sort of Pawn-Character that Matt Dillon has always portrayed, not saying a whole lot while absorbing people and places surrounding him...

Dillon in nickel-plated Noir HD on WAYWARD PINES
But... let's just say, after a literally explosive Season One finally, we're left with his mopey son and wife, with no more dad: so it's off our DVR list. Back up a few years and, back to the big screen, in Kevin Bacon's wild and seedy, vapid and silly, sexed and revved-up exploitation Noir, WILD THINGS, Matt turns in another of his Wild Card roles; it's a hot and sizzling pot-boiler — or at least, tried for it but wound up getting short-lived publicity for Bacon's full frontal nudity...

And hey, come to think of it, even in the most popular and effective of the few comedies he's been cast, The Farrelly Brother's THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, Dillon's character, Pat Healy, is a patronizing, lying, cheating Gumshoe, and plays it straight with the comedy around him... So basically, he just can't escape a genre that ended before he was born, and thereafter morphed into an endless array of Neo Noir, that he — in style and substance, voice, rhythm and groove — has been suited for, for so very long.
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