It was in the early to mid 90’s when I really fell in love with cinema, the “boom” period of alternative American cinema was in full flow and the likes of Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarantino, Tom DiCillo, Robert Rodriguez and The Coen Brothers were all hitting their peak. These “indie” films were not only the start of illustrious careers for their directors, but were also a place for young up and coming actors to shine. Brad Pitt showed glimpses of his edgier side in Johnny Suede, Johnny Depp put in what I consider to be a career best performance as William blake in Dead Man and George Clooney suddenly went from hunky to TV doctor to heavily tattooed, vampire killing bad-ass. Throughout all these films though, there seemed to be one constant, one thing linking them all together, one man who should be the lynch pin of the six degrees of separation theory, Steve Buscemi.
As an actor I liked Buscemi the first time I ever saw him, as Charlie the Barber in Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, he was like an island of nerves, surrounded by the sea of cool that was Joe Strummer. Buscemi has made his name playing the roles no-one else can (or wants to); on film he’s the ultimate loser and if a director’s looking to cast for the character of ‘weird-looking, slightly nervous guy’, Buscemi’s name is always going be first on that list. One look at the roles he’s played over his 25 year career and it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone else playing these characters. Whether as the “kinda funny looking” Carl Showalter in Fargo, the scene-stealing Mr Pink in Reservoir Dogs or the down-trodden Theodore “Shut the fuck up Donny” Donald in The Big Lebowski, Buscemi always takes a role and unquestionably owns it. This is undoubtedly the case in one of his most recent roles as Buscemi fills the titular role in Hue Rhodes’ Dante inspired, low-budget debut feature Saint John of Las Vegas and ultimately steals the show.
After a run of bad luck, John (Steve Buscemi), a compulsive gambler, runs away from Las Vegas and toward a normal job and life. Taking a nondescript position in an auto insurance company in Albuquerque, he tries to get ahead in the straight world, amid the ever-present temptations of scratch-off lotto tickets.
When his boss, Mr. Townsend (Peter Dinklage), asks John to accompany his top fraud debunker, Virgil (Romany Malco) on an investigation of a dubious car “accident” near Vegas, John sees an opportunity to get a promotion, though he’s concerned about returning to the gambling game.
Through the journey, John’s confidence builds, and he realizes that he can’t escape his gambling addiction by running away from it—it will follow him wherever he goes. It’s only when he returns to Vegas and his experiences there finally send him on the path to breaking free.
Saint John of Las Vegas follows the wild and funny trip a guy has to take to discover there’s more than one way to hit the jackpot in life.
Ignoring Steve Buscemi for a moment, the plot of Saint John is nothing particularly original as our down on his luck anti-hero tries to turn his life around (in many ways Rhodes film is similar to Wayne Kramer’s 2003 film, The Cooler). However, the film is made by a series of strange encounters and some wonderful casting and is at its most successful when it hits its road movie section, as Buscemi and Malco head towards Vegas (a place not particularly beneficial for a compulsive gambler trying to kick the habit), trying to uncover the truth behind a suspicious insurance claim. Along the way they stumble into an array of peculiar situations, finding themselves face to face with the Flame Lord, getting a lap-dance with a wheelchair bound stripper and have their path blocked by a group of fire wielding naturists. Alongside Steve Buscemi, he finds himself surrounded by a wealth of strong performances, as Romany Malco (The 40 year old Virgin), Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent) and the strangely sexy Sarah Silverman all put in decent turns. There’s even a Buscemi style cameo from Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou?), playing a cowboy naturist who wont let anything unnatural pass into the reserve, unless it’s a gun…..or boots….or a cowboy hat.
The film has received some pretty poor reviews so far, with some describing it as a pointlessly nonlinear narrative overflowing with superficial walk-on characters or a bad script that somehow got made into a bad movie with good people in it. Maybe this is just going to be one of those films that’s a bit of a secret indulgence for me, but how can you not like a film with a Steve Buscemi in such sparkling form. For me I’m with film critic Roger Moore in agreeing that is a film Buscemi was born to star in and how can that be a bad thing?