A kooky, disposable caper that’s light on charm and heavy on nonsense, Hadi Hajaig’s “Blue Iguana” was conceived as a throwback to the golden age of VHS crime-comedies — as the kind of freewheeling late-80s’ fare in which anything could happen because everything turned a profit on home video. And maybe, if you squint really hard, you can see the faintest shades of films like “Something Wild” or “Miami Blues” mixed into this manic parade of dumb criminals and even dumber plotting. Alas, anybody who watches Hajaig’s movie that closely will be more transfixed by the enormous gap between what the writer-director was going for and what he ultimately got.
Harkening back to John Lafia’s 1988 “The Blue Iguana” (a forgotten video store treasure starring Dylan McDermott as a bounty hunter) and Michael Radford’s more recent “Dancing at the Blue Iguana” (a Daryl Hannah/Sandra Oh/Jennifer Tilly stripper movie from the director of “Il Postino”!), even the title of Hajaig’s film summons to mind the kind of thing you might have rented from the local video store on a quiet Saturday night.
But aside from some bloody spots of ultra-violence, that’s just about where the nostalgia ends. And despite a starring turn from Sam Rockwell (whose character arc boils down to mastering a Cockney accent) and a supporting performance that should help Phoebe Fox convert a small legion of new fans, this “Blue Iguana” is far less evocative of yesterday’s classics than it is of today’s direct-to-VOD dreck.
Our story begins at breakneck speed in a Brooklyn diner, where ex-cons Eddie (Rockwell) and Paul (Ben Schwartz) have worked since their time in the clink together. Eddie is obsessed with comic books, but otherwise kind of blank. Paul has even less going on — he’s the manic sidekick, crowding every nanosecond of silence with irritating comments that help to sustain a “comedic” tone without ever actually being funny. “Blue Iguana” is less than 30 seconds old before it’s clear that Hajaig has painfully overestimated our interest in these two bumbling idiots, and it never recovers.
A British lawyer named Katherine (Fox) shows up and starts jabbering about some job she wants the boys to pull back in London. She looks more like a librarian than a gangster, but she promises it’ll be a simple package delivery, and that no one will get hurt. Five minutes later, Eddie and Paul are standing in the massive center hall of London’s Natural History Museum and watching — mouths agape — as some local stooge swan dives from an overpass and splats on the stone below.
An amusing display of misplaced confidence and bone-crunching sound effects, the messy stunt is shot with a sense of comic purpose that’s missing from the rest of the movie. Fortunately, it’s not the last time that Hajaig leans towards ultra-violence; “Blue Iguana” saves its smartest set-piece for the end, climaxing with an eruption of gore so ridiculous that it almost redeems the sweaty contrivances required to make it happen. At best, the grand finale is a consolation prize for determined viewers who manage to stick it out through an interminable middle hour that’s full of stuff, but absent any compelling reason for us to care about any of it.
The particulars are pretty irrelevant, but suffice it to say that our heroes are in a bit over their heads. That “simple package delivery” leads to some business about a priceless jewel called the “Blue Iguana,” and Eddie and Paul get mixed up with a crime boss (Peter Polycarpou) and his psychopathic henchman (Peter Ferdinando as Deacon, a bruiser with a bad mullet and even worse mommy issues).
A half-dozen other characters show up and try to convince us of their importance, but the more people get mixed into this tasteless chowder the more it feels like they’re all in different movies. There’s a princess and a smelly guy and a gangster whose only trait is that he’s got a big crush on Eddie… at one point someone looks at Rockwell and threatens to “cut his dick off and turn it into Ravioli.” Of all the pastas to make from a penis, that hardly seems like the most practical.
The film never slows down to catch its breath or collect itself, even as the plot gets bogged down in the stinky London flat where Eddie and Paul are planning their next move. Brace for endless bickering as Hajaig struggles to reconcile the ’80s gangster movie vibe with some kind of graphic novel aesthetic — beware the garish colors and the canted angles and that one silly cutaway where Katharine checks out Eddie’s butt in the middle of a brawl.
The simmering romance between those two is the closest thing the movie has to a center, and it only holds together to the extent that it does because Fox and Rockwell have charisma for days. It’s always intriguing to see what good actors do when they’re stuck with utterly gormless material, and Fox and Rockwell find something real within one another. Through furtive looks and a whole lot of food-related business (both of these performers are all-time screen eaters), they sell the idea that these characters have finally hit upon something valuable that they don’t have to steal. The spark that’s shared between them is all the more precious in a tedious movie that doesn’t have a single original idea of its own.
“Blue Iguana” opens in theaters and on VOD on August 24th.