Phoenix opens with such a classic scene that you’ll immediately know what kind of movie you’re dealing with. Let me paint the picture for ya, shall I? It’s a rainy night and our protagonist, detective Harry stumbles out of the car. He breaks into an abandoned building, sits down, and lights a cigarette. Then Harry notices that the place is crawling with cockroaches, commenting how he could’ve made a bunch of money on them. Now, if that is not a perfect opening for a dark thriller about a compulsive gambler who happens to be a cop, I don’t know what is. This movie knows what it is and what it wants to achieve, successfully navigating the treacherous waters of the subgenre.
The first thing you’re going to notice about Phoenix is spectacular cinematography. Cinematography that feels like it doesn’t belong in a 1998 movie you never heard of. Next up we have the very familiar cast who did an excellent job. As the names keep appearing, you will keep going I know this guy and I know this guy. Sure, they may be best known as supporting actors but that doesn’t mean they’re bad. Ray Liotta was born to play these troubled detectives and Anthony LaPaglia was surprisingly good here. I also want to mention Jeremy Piven who was in some excellent thrillers during the nineties. Very Bad Things, Judgment Night, and motherfucking Heat are all great movies, always worth revisiting.
Harry, Mike, Fred and James are not only cops who work together but they’re also good friends. They enjoy a bit of banter and an occasional joke as well as a bit of action on the side. Harry, for example, is a compulsive gambler with a very firm set of rules. So far, he was relatively lucky but he’s been losing a lot of money lately. Money he doesn’t have and has to return. Has to return because the man to whom he owes money is very dangerous criminal that goes by the name of Chicago.
I’ve always said that being a cop is a very fucked up profession. It’s perfect for developing a series of issues and unhealthy habits, out of which gambling is the least concerning one. This high-stress environment pushes people to keep that adrenaline pumping. Phoenix offers very realistic characters and explores the mindset of a gambler. I feel like understand better now how it feels to have this urge to always be betting on something. I know Artie Lange talked about it and how he lost loads of money placing these crazy bets, not caring about the money really. And while I can see the similarities between Phoenix and Bad Lieutenant, I think that Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead is the winner here.
The main plot is pretty simplistic, perhaps even too simplistic for such well-developed characters. It feels forced at times but luckily the script and acting saves it from becoming anything more than that. This is essentially a standard-issue noir story with a bit more humor. I’m not complaining, just noticing. There’s a certain Tarantino slash Avery flavor to it, especially with those random stories Harry tells. And let’s not forget all the Dostoevsky refrences. Here’s my favorite one:
I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I am an unpleasant man. I think my liver is diseased. However, I don’t know beans about my disease, and I am not sure what is bothering me. I don’t treat it and never have, though I respect medicine and doctors. Besides, I am extremely superstitious, let’s say sufficiently so to respect medicine. (I am educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am.) No, I refuse to treat it out of spite. You probably will not understand that. Well, but I understand it.
Fyodor Dostoevsky – Notes From Underground
All in all, Phoenix is a streamlined thriller definitely worth checking out. Especially, if you’re a fan of the genre. Also check out The Runner, another similarly-themed hidden gem. And you can always browse our Rabbit Reviews selection of Police Movies.
Director: Danny Cannon
Writers: Eddie Richey
Cast: Ray Liotta, Anthony LaPaglia, Daniel Baldwin, Jeremy Piven, Xander Berkeley, Brittany Murphy, Giancarlo Esposito
Fun Facts: Jeremy Piven, Xander Berkeley, and Tom Noonan all appeared in Heat.