United States. 123 minutes. Directed by Joel Schumacher, 1999. Starring Nicolas Cage, Joaquin Phoenix, James Gandolfini, Peter Stormare, Anthony Heald, Catherine Keener.

The widow of a recently deceased captain of industry discovers a disturbing item amongst her late husband’s private personal effects: a reel of 8 mm movie film that appears to depict a young woman murdered by a man in bondage gear. She hires a private detective, Tom Welles, to discover the provenance of the film and determine his authenticity. Welles’s research uncovers the girl’s identity and traces her last known location to Hollywood; with the assistance of struggling musician Max California, he delves into the seedy underworld of extreme hardcore porn. The closer Welles gets to the truth, the more dangerous his investigations become–but the real danger is not to his life, but to his soul.

8MM boasted an impressive pedigree back in 1999: a script by Seven scribe Andrew Kevin Walker; direction by Joel Schumacher; a headlining performance by Nicolas Cage and a slew of supporting performances by up-and-coming character-actors such as Joachin Phoenix, James Gandolfini, Catherine Keener and Peter Stormare. The passage of time has been kind to the reputations of some of these individuals (Gandolfini, Keener) and not so kind to others (Schumacher being the most obvious; Cage and Phoenix, while still bankable and high-profile stars, have been the butt of numerous pop-culture jokes, largely due to the former’s erratic acting and the former’s erratic public behavior).

Divorced from the context of the era, the film holds up very well. Walker’s screenplay is one of the highlights of the late ’90s noir revival; it’s not hard to envision Tom Welles as a modern-day Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe (while he’s a family man and not quite as world-weary or cynical as his spiritual predecessors, he’s not afraid to lie and manipulate to get a job done, and he’s certainly a bit ruthless and more than a bit ambitious). Characterization is strong all round; the sarcastic and dry-humored Max is a particular highlight (“I might get drummed out of the Pornographer’s Union, and where would I be then?”).

Schumacher and Walker make the most of L.A.’s seedy underbelly, and the trips into the seedy underbelly of the hardcore underground are exceptionally vivid. 8MM does for Hollywood what Taxi Driver did for Manhattan: combine real-life sleaze with urban legends to bring a vision of near-dystopian city survival to life. It’s dark and dangerous, to be sure, but it’s also intoxicating and more than a little romantic. There’s a bit of social commentary as well, about the relationship the very rich have with the very desperate, but it’s usually subtle. Schumacher is rarely thought of as an auteur (for mostly good reason–although his stylistic strengths are too often overlooked), but his visual style and skill at generating and maintaining suspense serve him well, holding the audience’s attention when the plot meanders a bit.

Unfortunately, things tend to fall apart a bit as the film enters its final act. Most of the supporting cast–Phoenix as Max, Gandolfini as “talent scout” Eddie Poole, Keener as Welles’s wife Amy, Myra Carter as the widowed Mrs. Christian, and Amy Morton as the mother of the film’s subject/victim–put in exceptional performances. The introduction of porno director Dino Velvet, played by Stormare, signals a significant downturn in the quality of the acting. Stormare’s a fine actor, but often prone to flamboyant, hey-look-at-me overacting; while Velvet requires a bit of an over-the-top performance, Stormare doesn’t seem to realize that there’s even a top to go over. Anthony Heald, a subtle, almost forgettable presence as the Christian family’s attorney in the film’s early going, turns into a one-note villain after his character is revealed to be in league with the bad guys.

Cage’s steely, understated poker face as Welles dissolves as the character looks into the heart of darkness, resulting in a lot of tortured “face acting” and overstated rage…the exact sort of thing that would later turn “OH, NO! NOT THE BEES!” and “STEP AWAY FROM THE BIKE!” into internet catchphrases. The death of Max California robs the film of what is arguably its most engaging character. And–most unfortunate of all–the final confrontation with the bondage-suited Machine (you’d expect him to look like Kane Hodder, but he turns out to be a balding, bespectacled, middle-aged loser who still lives with his mother) is drained of all its power when the character literally delivers a monologue regarding the film’s themes.

It’s enough to mar the film, but not to totally overwhelm its numerous strengths, and 8MM retains its harrowing power even in the face of its flaws. It remains one of the most memorable psych thrillers of its era.

R.I.P. James Gandolfini 1961-2013

8MM poster

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