Hit Me: Shainberg’s Feature Debut, Adaptation of Jim Thompson

Lacking genuine suspense, erotic charge, and intriguing characters, all crucial elements for an effectively pleasing film noir, Steven Shainberg’s feature debut, Hit Me, is arguably the weakest adaptation of beloved crime novelist Jim Thompson to reach the big screen to date.

Theatrical future looks dim for a movie that is not only poorly conceived and directed, but is also sabotaged by Elias Koteas’ mannered performance in what seems to be the worst imitation imaginable of Robert De Niro.

The dark, ironic literary output of Thompson, who died in 1977, has inspired some of the great modern noirs: Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway, Bertrand Tavernier’s Coup de torchon, Steven Frears’ The Grifters, James Foley’s After Dark My Sweet. Compared with these achievements, including Maggie Greenwald’s flawed The Kill Off, Hit Me, based on Thompson’s novella, A Swell-Looking Babe, is irritating almost from the first scene.

Set in Washington’s Tacoma, yarn revolves around Sonny (Koteas), a desperate bellhop whose hopeful dreams lead him to believe that he could have a better life–if only he gained some money. Living with his obese, mentally retarded brother, Leroy (Jay Leggett), Sonny’s life is drab and dreary. Opportunity knocks when one evening a young enigmatic woman, Monique (Laure Marsac) asks for room service, though as soon as he arrives in her room, she cuts her wrists with a knife.

A bizarre affair (lacking steamy sex) evolves between Sonny and Monique, a femme lost in the stars who describes herself as “a four-star woman in a two-star hotel.” The plot gets going, when Del (Bruce Ramsay), a street hustler, drags his not very bright buddy Sonny into a dangerous scheme that involves stealing money from the safe deposits of the rich guests at the hotel where Sonny works. Predictably, things go wrong, with Sonny and his cohorts not realizing that Lenny Ish (Philip Baker Hall), the hotel’s top executive and the head of illegal card games, is much smarter than they are.

On paper, Hit Me features a complicated, fanciful, labyrinth-like tale, filled with criminal schemes, double-dealings and double-crossings. Nonetheless, neophyte Shainberg seems totally lost in the maze, unable to clearly navigate the twisted plot or stage emotionally engaging sequences. The camera is often in the wrong place, bizarre point-of-view shots and skewed angles that are meant to be inventive and revelatory just manage to be jarringly distancing.

Shainberg is further defeated by his two leads, both severely miscast. Elias, who has given deft performances in Atom Egoyan’s films, terribly overacts, with mannerisms and gestures aping De Niro’s rich gallery of disturbed men; sporting a short black hair, he even looks like De Niro. Worse, there is no chemistry between him and Marsac, who looks reasonably sexy as the alluring babe, but suffers from a problem that has afflicted many talented French actresses before her: Her English is so heavily accented that it’s almost unclear, rendering her lines a quality of sameness. Pic features last performance by Oscar-winner Haing S. Ngor (The Killing Fields), who was killed last year.