In the early days of noir filmmaking, even when a book was the source of the story, the films were made with a genuine sense of danger. Noir was still a new genre, and we didn’t exactly quite know the rules yet. That led to filmmakers essentially writing, shooting and performing what they knew, from the dangerous bar down the street, to the dame with whom they shouldn’t have trifled, to the backroom brawls that had the stench of sweat, desperation, and bourbon. It’s a cliché to point out that yesterday’s filmmakers actually lived life, but it’s true — the internet hadn’t yet been invented.
It’s a broad and blind accusation to suggest that director David Ren, the man behind “The Girl From The Naked Eye,” hasn’t lived this sort of life. However, it’s clear from this modern pulp pastiche that the reservoir he’s drawing from is made up of other films, other hardboiled stories, from cheapie double feature fedora actioners to dime store soft-cover books. As a movie, “Naked Eye” feels lived in, but as a believable world, it’s loaded with bad actors, flimsy sets, and poor digitally-enhanced chiaroscuro shadows. It’s an imitation on a budget, getting by on its enthusiasm.
Co-writer Jason Yee stars as Jake, a mob muscleman forced to pay off his loans by escorting prostitutes to their clients. If they’re lonely, make small talk. If they’re in trouble, let your fists talk. Despite rows of women — in this sparsely populated town, the prostitutes seem to outnumber the johns — none crack Jake’s hard-boiled interior quite like fresh-faced Sandy (Samantha Streets). Sandy wants to be a college girl, she loves dancing and silent films, and is both youthfully effervescent and abnormally eloquent. The granite tough guy Yee and the bouncy, flighty Streets may not have much chemistry, but its not for her lack of trying.
As the film begins, however, Sandy’s been murdered. Jack hits the streets to find out exactly what happened to her, though his interrogations and bursts of violence recall more contemporary action than classic hardboiled tough guy fiction. The story’s sommersaults, unfortunately, represent a chance for Jake to get some exercise more than they seem like forward motion. Particularly when the final act resolution reveals an answer that proved so deceptively simple that it accidentally makes the hero look like a fool.
Yee is a sturdy presence as a leading man, but he never once convinces the audience of an inner life. If anything, the phony hardboiled narration, informed not by necessity but because this is just what these movies do, creates a distancing effect, given that he doesn’t seem like a guy with his own inner monologue. More surprisingly, it’s the fight choreography that suffers, most of it hardcore hand-to-hand. Sadly, Yee simply isn’t a fast enough puncher to justify the wild, unprotected swings that are part of his repertoire. The film treats combat scenes as major set-pieces, but the choreography suggests the approach of someone who would be taken down quite quickly in actual combat. It doesn’t help that a scene mimicking the hallway brawl in “Oldboy” (albeit twice as long) isn’t nearly as exciting when extras are lining up to wait patiently for the opportunity to punch the leading man.
The most surprising element of the film is the demographic breakdown. The male leads are all Asians, all sexual and powerful people, a likelihood in many American cities that’s never appropriated for the cinema. The female characters, almost all prostitutes, are mixed race, but most of the pairings team white women and Asian males, an unspoken taboo in American films. The most notable of these names, however, is Sasha Grey, who pops up in a one scene role where she takes a punch to the face. Perhaps it’s due to the timeless quality of Ms. Grey’s looks, but it’s the one moment that feels seamy and grimy enough to suggests someone knows the sensibilities of noir beyond raiding Netflix for a few choice cuts. [D]