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Film Review/The Rourke Factor: Shades

Posted on by sam

Shades/The Rourke Factor: Now We’re in Decline

Director: Erik Van Looy (1999)

The Story so Far: I went to a Less than Jake gig (incidentally featuring The Story So Far amongst the support) and bippidy boppedy boo on the way home I found Mickey Rourke mentioned in a newspaper article. BLAMMO! I decided to embark upon a voyage of discovery by reviewing Rourke films. Dan Dan Danna Dun I started with two good performances (The Wrestler and Angel Heart) and now instalment 3 blah blah blah crappy gimmick poorly executed.


Shades is a Belgian film so obscure it barely constitutes a Wikipedia entry. I highly doubt I’d have come close to watching it if it weren’t for Rourke and I’m not counting that as a favour. It’s not that Shades is a bad film so much as a collection of bad decisions weighing down some potentially good ones, more after the plot summary…………………….

In a part of Belgium conspicuously lacking in blonde people on bicycles (I’ve been, Belgium is like forty percent blonde people on bicycles, trust me), former cult Hollywood Director Paul Sullivan (Rourke) finds himself trying to restore a career destroyed by excess (see what they did there) by directing a controversial Belgian film named Shades (see what they did there). Shades is the study of the life of Belgian serial killer Freddy Lebecq (Jan Declier, a Belgian cinema legend), who developed an unfortunate taste for hacking women into pieces while wearing sunglasses.

For the role of Lebecq Sullivan has roped in Dylan Cole (Andrew Howard who was in that unnecessary I Spit On Your Grave remake), a star he shared the glory days with, who’s also fallen on hard times thanks to a life of excess and pissing off executives. Finding financing for the project is Max Vogel (Gene Bervoets), a producer with desires to qualify as a Hollywood player by spouting bullshit one liners for a living and finally Mireille Leveque appears as generic female character with nothing to do except look pretty #985.

Originally it looks like the production might go uncannily well, media attention is good, America’s interested in a regional release of a Sullivan-Cole reunion and the crew (who are mostly French for no discernible reason) are committed and probably more importantly capable. Then the actual plot suffers from Good Idea Bad Idea syndrome and everything peters out to nonsensical.

It's time for animaiacs


Amongst the good ideas we see Dylan Cole getting far too into character and sympathising with a convicted serial killer, which leads to him being uncontrollable and drugged up on set. There’s also a fascinating debate that rages between the filmmakers, the actual Lebecq and the families of his victims over how far a film on the life and deeds of a real life murderer can be classed as entertainment. Amongst the bad ideas is everything else the film does bar a generic lawyer character with a huge moustache, I’m neutral on characters with huge moustaches.

HUGE Moustaches are the Sweden of the facial hair world


Plot summary finishes.

I think the main problem I have with Shades is that in terms of story and direction, it has no idea what it wants to be. Serious moments featuring a character nearly dying of a drug overdose or a moving testimony by a man whose mental health declined to the point of needing to kill to feel anything are juxtaposed with satirical scenes in which Hollywood speak is delivered in a terrible Belgian accent. The decline of a once successful director is mixed with a raucous and slapstick appearance on a chat show and at one point the most ridiculous shooting in history occurs. It’s all a bit of a mess and to be honest, after the fifth or sixth time seeing someone called an arsehole in the middle of a conversation in Flemish, everything becomes rather boring.

There are some positives, it’s just not all of them are reasons to watch and I’m pretty sure one or two are by accident. Andrew Howard as Dylan Cole is fantastic; it’s interesting watching a character get so attached to playing a serial killer that he starts to justify the unjustifiable. Sadly the makers of Shades decided the best way to continue this subplot was to have Howard’s character get self-destructively high on drugs and be a dick on set (guessing Rourke provided a lot of advice on how to do that well), which worked the first time but not the forth. Likewise Jan Declier as Lebecq deserves a nod, despite being given very little to do until the last ten minutes, (and even that is so inane you’re not sure the makers aren’t trying to troll their audience) he delivers a classy, subtle performance.

Unfortunately the main reason I can suggest for watching Shades will actually eliminate it from a lot of people’s radars; Shades may not be the most interesting or intelligent belle of the ball but damn if it isn’t the best dressed.  Erik Van Looy (incidentally also a Belgian television host) certainly knows what he’s doing in terms of visuals, Shades looks amazing. They do the whole film within a film thing and use different colour schemes throughout, there’s rich use of textures and depth. The camerawork is interesting and achieves far greater results than a wannabe indie director like me is currently capable of. Sometimes when a scene in a film is boring (and Shades has plenty that meet that description) I’ll find myself looking at the technical side instead and technically speaking, Shades is excellent.

But a good looking film with a poor story is not and hopefully never will be acceptable. There are far too many in-jokes and as a film it’s just massively and inexcusably self-indulgent. The Hollywood speak from Max Vogel is particularly jarring and the subtitling is crap with a tendency to have characters speak in Flemish then switch to French or German with slightly differently shaped subtitles that gets very old very quickly. Finally the ending of Shades is that level of smugness that South Park likened to smelling one’s own farts for satisfaction.

Everything I’ve thought over carefully and worked hard to write reduced to a sentence; good looking but bad story, if you’re not looking for technical ideas I wouldn’t advise you bother.

And now we come to the reason I bothered, Monsieur Rourke.

I’ve been looking forward to watching the ‘lost years’ of Rourke’s career, partly because I’m a petty, twisted, bitter, lonely, loveless, hate-filled and spiteful person who revels in the failures of others, but also because after seeing him in Angel Heart I couldn’t actually believe Rourke would be capable of a terrible performance. Truth is Rourke in Shades isn’t as terrible as I’d heard, he’s certainly a cut above most of the rest of the cast (though Mireille Leveque gets a pass for being as underutilised as the energy of the sun), it’s just compared to other performances I can’t help but view Rourke’s portrayal of Paul Sullivan as lazy. His appearance (which by this point was borderline grey with unkempt hair) not withstanding, there’s no panache or depth to the character; gone are the mannerisms, the little moments bouncing off another actor or any interesting delivery of lines. Everything’s been replaced by a bland and jaded looking Rourke, he looks bored in every scene and speaks as if he can’t wait for filming to be over, also he slurs in some scenes as well so I’m guessing he must have had some late nights, wonder what he was doing…….

But like I said, it’s not a deal breaker, Rourke is so talented that even when he’s being lazy he’s watchable. It’s just sad to see him looking worn out and phoning it in (regular readers, if the existed, may now remark on how much I enjoy/overuse that phrase) in an obscure self-indulgent Belgian film, but by this point Rourke had become so destructive that Hollywood would rather release a horror like Wild Wild West than work with him. Interesting to know that you could still see he had ‘it’ though, even if he wasn’t using ‘it’.

Just to end with clarity, ‘it’ isn’t heroin.

Written by Sam ‘Belgium was dull but Bruges made the rest of the country look like the world’s greatest rollercoaster by comparison’ McKinstrie

Unnecessarily on twitter as McKinstHFP

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