This is about to turn bad, isn’t it, Max?” says Chazz Palminteri to Nick Nolte about two thirds of the way through Mulholland Falls. He’s approximately an hour and a half late in delivering what is an apt verdict on this oh-so-disappointing thriller about crime, corruption, romance, regret, and John Malkovich’s absolute refusal to deliver a line in a straightforward manner.
We in the audience knew things were probably heading toward bad in the first few minutes of the film, when Nolte and Palminteri — along with Chris Penn and Michael Madsen, portraying burly, growly members of the real-life 1950s maverick police unit known as the Hat Squad — enter a swank restaurant with fedoras clapped down over their crime-busting brows and the maitre d’ asks, ”Can I check your hats?” Such clanking obviousness is surprisingly typical of the work here by real talents: director Lee Tamahori (whose first film, Once Were Warriors, contained more slam-bang action over its opening credits than Mulholland has in its entirety) and screenwriter Pete Dexter (who has written novels with opening sentences more vivid than any full-length scene in Mulholland).
The plot has the Hat Squad investigating the murder of a sweet-faced sleaze played va-va-voomingly by The Rocketeer‘s Jennifer Connelly (yes, Virginia, there is a Jessica Rabbit). Connelly’s client list leads the Hats to an overseer of the recently detonated atomic bomb (Malkovich, mumbling morosely). And it is quickly revealed that Nolte’s character had an affair with the girl, unbeknownst to his beloved wife, played by Melanie Griffith.
We’re supposed to be drawn in by Nolte’s suffering over the true love he felt for Connelly and the agonizing deception he’s maintained with Griffith, but too much dull stuff gets in the way. There’s an unfunny comic subplot about Palminteri’s character undergoing psychoanalysis and tedious scenes of the Hat Squad roughing up suspects (Rob Lowe, smacked in the puss; William Petersen, thrown off the Hollywood hill the Hats nicknamed Mulholland Falls; Treat Williams, dangled from a plane).
Mulholland Falls is shot with shimmery vibrancy by cinematographer Haskell Wexler (In the Heat of the Night), whose noble work only makes you shake your head and say, Forget it, Jake. This is Chinatown for chowderheads. C-