But that meandering also is perhaps my biggest problem, both with “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” and Cassavetes' work in general. I don't want to say that his stuff can feel aimless at times, if only because it seems obvious (to me, at least) that Cassavetes has intent whenever he has long stretches of characters interacting but doing little to advance the film in what feels like a meaningful way. Yet it felt like I spent half the film looking at the television and asking, “Why? What is the point of this?”
Maybe this is just what happens when a director like Cassavetes tries something outside his wheelhouse, but his approach feels wholly at odds with what works within the genre. Then again, this is Cassavetes, and experimentation has more or less been his bread and butter, so I suppose this is only fitting.
“The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” was Cassavetes' attempt at making a gangster picture. It follows Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara), a strip club owner who, already in debt to loan sharks, finds himself owing a substantial amount of money to members of the mob. In order to settle this debt, they insist Cosmo carry out a hit against a frail, old Chinese bookie. However, these mob guys never expected Cosmo to be successful in his first attempt at hired assassination, much less to make it out of the situation alive, so it becomes a game of cat-and-mouse as Cosmo fights for his life.
The problem is that every time the film threatens to become interesting, engaging or to muster up some momentum, Cassavetes quickly slams the brakes by giving yet another extended scene where characters talk about…stuff (i.e. nothing memorable enough to recall or important to the plot or character development). Or it's another 10 minute sequence inside the club where we're forced to watch more awkwardly choreographed and executed dance “presentations.” It's beyond frustrating, to the point where I'm not unconvinced Cassavetes wasn't trying to say something with all of this, I just have no idea what that might be.
At 135 minutes, it can feel interminable, a sentiment supposedly shared by Gazzara, who also told Cassavetes he had difficulty identifying with Cosmo. There, apparently, exists a 107 minute cut of the film, and I'm actually quite anxious to track it down. From what I've read it sounds like it rectifies a lot of the pacing and content problems I had.
I didn't enjoy “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie,” but I'm still not ready to call it a bad movie, per se. Maybe it's just a case of both not knowing what to expect while also expecting a certain thing (if that makes any sense at all), something that could be assuaged by a second viewing. We'll see, I suppose.
Next week, I'll wrap up this Cassavetes series with a review of “Opening Night.” Following that, I'll begin a series looking at some of the films of Richard Linklater, including “Slacker,” “Dazed and Confused,” “Waking Life,” “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset.”