Mulholland Falls (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Following several release delays, Mulholland Falls has finally reached theaters. Usually, when a distributor keeps putting off a film's opening, it's a sign that there's something wrong with the production, and, about halfway through Mulholland Falls' one-hundred seven minute running length, we figure out what that "something" is: the plot, to put it charitably, is shaky. This is a great looking film with a fine cast, but, when all is said and done, the storyline doesn't cut it. It's convoluted, contrived, and, worst of all, has a disappointing payoff.

Don't blame veteran cinematographer Haskell Wexler (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) for Mulholland Falls' failings, however. This is one of the most visually striking films to come out this year. Everything is gorgeous, from the scenes of downtown LA in the '50s to a panoramic view of the city at night. There is also one truly awe-inspiring moment when four men stand at the lip of an atomic crater and gaze into its maw. That image will be remembered after everything else in this movie is forgotten.

Because of its tone and subject matter, Mulholland Falls recalls Chinatown, albeit incompletely. Nick Nolte is Max Hoover, the head of an elite group of four LA cops (based on the real life "Hat Squad") whose job is, simply put, to "get rid of gangsters and criminals." His partners are Coolidge (Chazz Palminteri) and the one-dimensional duo of Hall and Relyea (underplayed by those two Reservoir Dogs, Michael Madsen and Chris Penn). These are hard-bitten guys with tailored suits who aren't bothered by anything -- when a mobster comes into their town, they take him out for a spin in their black Buick convertible, then throw him off a cliff somewhere along Mulholland Drive. One day, they're called to investigate the murder of a young woman (Jennifer Connelly), who is found crushed to death a few miles outside LA. Clues, including a damning reel of salacious film, point to the involvement of a high-placed U.S. government official (John Malkovich). The case unsettles Max, however, since he had recently ended a six-month affair with the girl.

For a while, Mulholland Falls looks like a solid noir thriller. The plot, which generates a certain degree of tension, builds slowly. How did the girl die? What was a sliver of radioactive glass doing in her heel? How is the atomic energy commission involved? And will Hoover and his three partners get to the bottom of things before someone gets rid of them? Unfortunately, as each of these questions is answered, the story becomes progressively less interesting and harder to swallow. By the end, we're left feeling cheated, as if the writers squandered a number of promising ideas.

The acting, like so much else in Mulholland Falls, is uneven. Nolte presents an effective portrait of a blase cop who suddenly finds his once-stable world turned upside down. On the other hand, Palminteri, who excels at playing New York gangsters, is all wrong for a West Coast cop (even though Coolidge asserts that he's from Jersey). Madsen and Penn, like most of the supporting characters, are window dressing. Malkovich is suitably creepy in limited screen time. And Jennifer Connelly is sultry and appealing, even though she appears exclusively in flashbacks.

Mulholland Falls isn't a bad film, but it definitely is disappointing, especially coming from director Lee Tamahori, who brought the powerful Once Were Warriors to the screen. Tamahori's direction is inconsistent, but, ultimately, this movie is undermined by its screenplay. Certain aspects are laudable, but, all things considered, those elements aren't enough to keep Mulholland Falls from slipping over the edge into mediocrity.

Mulholland Falls (United States, 1996)

Run Time: 1:47
U.S. Release Date: 1996-04-26
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1