Ok, so you’ve had a couple of hits, maybe three or four. You’ve become a monster sex symbol — women will flock to theaters just to watch your buns. Most of all, you have power in Hollywood. You call the shots! So now you want more. In your new picture, you’re not interested in being a mere hero. You want to play a stud, a saint, a martyr, a kick-ass demon. You want to be Top Gun, Über-dude. Who ya gonna call?
You call Tony Scott, of course. He’s the director who does for Hollywood mega-stars what Leni Riefenstahl did for Hitler: transforms them from big into monumental. In the shamelessly entertaining Top Gun, he made a piece of state-of-the-art Reaganite smarm that pushed Tom Cruise’s career into overdrive. With Beverly Hills Cop II, he built an insanely flashy, high-decibel shrine to Eddie Murphy’s ego — it was like a James Bond flick played entirely on fast-forward.
Now it’s Kevin Costner’s turn. Only this time the Scott master plan may have backfired. Revenge, based on Jim Harrison’s 1979 novel (with Costner serving as executive producer), is a piece of high-trash exploitation that turns ugly, draggy, and finally ludicrous. It’s a lavishly sensationalistic Western thriller done in soft, lurid colors. Scott is already famous for his work in British television commercials, but now he seems to have entered some new frontier of druggy visual lyricism. Filmed in Mexico, Revenge is an orgy of smoke, haze, and candlelight, of overripe greens and browns, of fabulously orchestrated shafts of light. Scott is no ordinary junkmeister — he’s turning into the Caravaggio of hacks.
For about half an hour Revenge is calm and seductive, as Jay Cochran (Costner), a newly retired Navy fighter pilot, journeys to Puerto Vallarta to visit his friend Tibey (Anthony Quinn), a grizzled patriarch who lives on a hacienda. The two play tennis, hunt quail, and engage in much earnest bonding.
As soon as we meet Quinn, though, it’s clear — at least, to everyone but Costner — that this sinister grandee who looks like Aristotle Onassis and speaks in a whispery croak is not going to turn out to be a very nice guy. And the moment we spot his leggy young wife (Madeleine Stowe) and watch her eyes lock with Costner’s well, you don’t need a Ph.D. in film noir to see that these two are going to blow steam up each other’s nostrils, and that when Quinn finds out, they’re going to be in deep guano.
Everything in Revenge is so archetypal and obvious that the film plays like some laughably solemn ritual. The plot turns on the tribal puritanism of Quinn’s character. When he discovers his wife’s betrayal, his punishment is so cruel — he slashes her cheek, sticks her in a whorehouse, and shoots her full of heroin — that it’s hard not to recoil in horror, even as you realize the film is whipping up a hysterical portrait of Latino-style vengeance. Tony Scott is trying hard to do for Mexicans what Midnight Express did for Turks. He doesn’t seem real crazy about women, either. By the end, Quinn has put Stowe through so much abuse (all of it lingered over with Scott’s usual fetishistic imagery) that it’s impossible to separate the character’s misogyny from the movie’s.
As for Costner, he gets beaten to smithereens and dumped in the desert, so that he can spend the film’s interminable final hour trying to save Stowe and get back at Quinn. Is there anything superstars love more than grandiose masochism? (In their eyes, it must seem like modesty.) Revenge turns both overwrought and dull, though the actors do enliven it a bit. Sally Kirkland, all cleavage and crooked smile, shows up for a couple of jaw-droppingly irrelevant scenes as a man-hungry rock & roller. And the talented Miguel Ferrer plays a poker-faced gunslinger who conveniently materializes to help Costner carry out his vendetta.
Anthony Quinn is actually quite good here. He uses his most distinctive feature — that mouth without lips — to create an aura of self-satisfied rot. And Madeleine Stowe is graceful and appealing, even though she’s mostly on hand to show off her ivory limbs and suffer like mad.
Costner has a few electric moments, especially when he stares down Quinn’s underworld cronies at the dinner table. Yet the movie’s somber silliness finally coheres around his presence. From first shot to last, Revenge is engineered to flatter its star. Scott’s camera ravishes Costner, whether he’s standing tall like a mythic gunslinger or humping away in the front seat of his car as he and Stowe cruise down the freeway. Even the beatings he takes are part of the mystique; by the end, he’s sporting the scars of a wounded demigod. The trouble with Scott’s movies is that they’re not just star vehicles. They’re about the aesthetics of celebrity, about the narcissism that’s going on offscreen. If Revenge ends up knocking Costner down a peg, it’ll be just what he needs — and deserves. D