Hit Me

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Hit Me

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Hit Me

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Adapted from great pulp novelist Jim Thompson's A Swell-Looking Babe, featuring the first screenplay by cult novelist Denis Johnson (author of Jesus' Son), directed by Secretary's Steven Shainberg, and starring Elias Koteas, Philip Baker Hall, and William H. Macy, Hit Me boasts an impressive pedigree. Yet it still somehow took seven years and the success of Secretary for the film to receive proper video distribution. Thankfully, Hit Me itself is no worse for wear. While not exactly an overlooked triumph, it's a nifty neo-noir highlighted by a rare starring turn from Koteas, who is best known to kids for his role in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies and to adults for his work with such kid-unfriendly directors as David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan. Koteas stars here as a typically luckless Thompson protagonist, a 31-year-old bellboy bedeviled by a cruel boss at work and an obese, mildly retarded man-child brother at home. Koteas' bleak existence seems to take a turn for the better when he's seduced by cut-rate femme fatale Laure Marsac, a French woman who totes around a miniature Eiffel Tower that seems equally likely to be used as a toy or a weapon. But as is often the case in Thompson's writings, hope is just a prelude to more degradation: Shortly after Marsac and Koteas exchange bodily fluids, Marsac cries rape. To prevent her from filing fraudulent charges, a coworker proposes paying her off with money stolen from the coke-addled astronomy nut in Hall's high-stakes poker game. There's a hint of Jerry Lewis in Koteas' riveting lead performance, and it isn't just the bellboy uniform. He conveys the bottomless rage lurking under his sycophantic exterior, somehow managing to coax sympathy for an inept criminal who isn't above slugging a woman in the mouth to get her to keep quiet. He makes for a terrifically hapless antihero, so the suspense in Hit Me isn't derived from whether the heist will go wrong, but how it will disintegrate. Shainberg displays a keen understanding of the existential darkness underpinning Thompson's noir novels: Hit Me has laughter and comedy, but it's drawn from despair and an intimate knowledge of the myriad failings of the human character. Late in the film, Koteas, fishing for meaning in a random and meaningless world, insists that something must have gone wrong, or else he's a killer and Marsac is a whore. Marsac's silence is telling. In Thompson's noirs, all men are potential killers and all women potential whores; they're just waiting for the right moment to reveal their true character.

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