Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Paul Schrader
Stars: Christopher Walken, Bridget Fonda, Skeet Ulrich, Tom Arnold, Gina Gershon, Janeane Garofalo, Lolita Davidovich, Paul Mazursky, Anthony Zerbe,
Running Time: 102 minutes.
It’s hard to be a saint in the city, especially when con men, slick hustlers and a particularly voracious media expect you to perform miracles on demand. Juvenal (Skeet Ulrich, from Scream, The Craft, etc) is a young missionary who has a gift for healing with his hands and bleeds from Christ-like wounds in his hands and feet. He currently works in anonymity in a seedy downtown mission, tending to old drunks and misfits. When Bill Hill (Christopher Walken), a disgraced former minister who now sells recreational vehicles for a living, learns of Juvenal’s gift he tries to recruit him and aggressively market him. Hill is a slick shark in a silk suit, and he sees in this supposed miracle worker a chance to resurrect his own career as an evangelist. He uses the winsome Lynn (Bridget Fonda), a former baton twirler at his revivalist meetings, to seduce Juvenal and persuade him to join forces for their common good.
Eager to further milk the Juvenal phenomenon for all it’s worth, Hill also enters into potentially lucrative agreements with sceptical tabloid journalist Kathy Worthington (Janeane Garofalo) and tv talk show host Debra Lusanne (Gina Gershon, from Bound, etc), who has a reputation for destroying her guests on air. The loose cannon in this melting pot is August Murray (Tom Arnold), leader of a fanatical and ultra-conservative religious group called Outrage, who want to return the Catholic church to its traditional base. Murray sees in Juvenal an omen of deep significance, and takes desperate measures to prevent Hill from tainting the miracle man’s God given powers.
Touch takes a satirical swipe at organised religion, tv evangelists, and a Catholic church that is out of touch with the spiritual and physical needs of its congregation. While on the surface this jauntily paced satire seems unusual material for acclaimed crime writer Elmore Leonard (who is best known for his tough noir crime novels like Get Shorty, etc), Touch is nonetheless crammed with his usual rogue’s gallery of sleazy con artists, hustlers, petty crooks and greedy opportunists. The film is also peppered with Leonard’s uniquely cinematic brand of droll humour, fast patter and tough-talking dialogue.
Unfortunately, Paul Schrader is probably the wrong director for this bizarre and playful film, which deftly skewers organised religion, fanaticism, the power of the media, our shallow and somewhat mercenary culture, and good old fashioned human greed. He was probably attracted to Leonard’s novel because of his own obsession with his strictly Calvinist background and upbringing, which has permeated many of his hard hitting films like Taxi Driver and Hardcore, etc, in which he explored the darker side of urban life in contemporary America. Schrader is obviously trying to emulate Barry Sonnenfeld’s deft touch with the recent adaptation of Get Shorty, but unfortunately he has no real flair for light comedy, and he brings to this material more of a serious and sombre mood than it really needs. Schrader displays a tendency to bludgeon into submission any of the finer and more subtle nuances of Leonard’s razor sharp prose style, and consequently Touch is an uneven and bizarre film that is ultimately something of a disappointment. This limp satire suffers from too many subplots that lack a clear focus, and characters who come across more as caricatures than real people.
That said though, Schrader is a director who knows what he wants from his actors, and he certainly draws some wonderful performances from a superb cast, who all seem enthusiastic about the material. Walken, in particular, is more restrained than usual here, and he seems to be enjoying himself playing this relatively light weight and more laid back hustler. Ulrich is perfectly cast as the young miracle worker, a non-judgmental sort who accepts everybody at face value, who is slowly drawn into the schemes and machinations of others with more devious motives. He has the drop-dead gorgeous good looks of a Johnny Depp combined with the grungy appeal of a Brad Pitt, and brings a convincing touch of naiveté to his biggest role yet as the innocent abroad. Fonda has a sexiness and magnetic appeal that makes the fluctuations of her character’s motives and emotional state quite believable. Arnold is quite convincing as the dangerously twisted nutter, while Garofalo is at her cynical and bitchy scene stealing best here. The driving score from the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl that accompanies the comic book style opening credits deliberately evokes memories of Pulp Fiction, but ultimately Touch has little in common with Tarantino’s darkly comic thriller.