Comedy, Thriller, Something Else: “The January Man” Doesn’t Know What It’s Meant To Be

One year on from the brilliant Otto West in A Fish Called Wanda, Kevin Kline heads to New York to track down a killer in Pat O’Connor’s crime-comedy-thriller mishmash.

Looking at Irish director Pat O’Connor’s past work you’d be forgiven for wondering what his true calling as a cinematic storyteller might be. Films such as 1988’s Stars and Bars starring Daniel Day-Lewis and its mishmash of outlandish comedy sits inharmoniously next to downbeat drama Fools of Fortune set during the bloody conflict of the Irish War of Independence. That isn’t to say the two films cannot successfully exist divorced from one another but it does highlight O’Connor’s diverse sensibilities. Indeed, he followed Fools of Fortune with period drama Circle of Friends. What is most distressing isn’t the fact he hired Minnie Driver to appear in Circle of Friends but the muted reception of the majority of his work. This mixture of concept and tone, and difficulty to break out of a rut that has returned only mediocrity, is in stark focus when watching 1989’s The January Man.

It begins with a murder. A woman is strangled. The police have few clues and since the latest victim is the eleventh to suffer at the hands of this elusive strangler, the pressure is on the Mayor to do something about it. He asks NYPD police commissioner Frank Starkey (Harvey Keitel) to bring his younger brother back to the force. Nick Starkey (Kevin Kline) was an ace cop before being disgraced in a scandal and expelled from the force. Now a successful fire fighter he is at first unwilling to return but, believing he can make a difference, accepts his brother’s invitation. Enlisting the help of his tech-savvy neighbour Ed (Alan Rickman) and the Mayor’s daughter Bernadette (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), the trio begin to piece together the evidence in their pursuit of the killer.

The January Man’s unevenness is its most distracting feature. It doesn’t know what it wants to be, mixing elements of slapstick comedy with supposedly heartfelt human drama, all the while purporting to be a mystery-thriller. Indeed, the messy nature of the comedy saps any energy the murder-mystery might have on the story, making it weak background noise to Nick Starkey’s blossoming love affair with Bernadette. Evidently, there is some fun to be had when the mismatched threesome (the “ace” cop, his lover and the neighbour) devise their plan to catch the strangler but getting there is not only cumbersome, it is also far too slow.

Certainly, the pacing of the film isn’t helped by a script that favours one-dimensional characters – the perennially annoyed Mayor, the kooky cop, the camp painter, the aggrieved wife of the police commissioner – and their individual conflicts over the underlying need to catch the killer. Of course, this isn’t Fincher’s Seven or Hitchcock’s Frenzy, director O’Connor and writer John Patrick Shanley aren’t concerned with the motives of their strangler or police procedure, but because these aspects are handled in such a haphazard way alongside the diminishing returns of its wayward tone and sleep-inducing pace, there isn’t much left to hold the attention.

Perhaps most damning is the film’s greatest attribute – the cast. Bringing together Rod Steiger, Harvey Keitel, Kevin Kline, Susan Sarandon, Alan Rickman, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Danny Aiello sounds fabulous on paper. However, when you consider that Keitel and Sarandon can safely shelve their roles and performances along the worst of their careers, you begin to understand that turning up to set is only a tiny part of the profession. I can only think Keitel took on the underwritten role of police commissioner Frank Starkey because of a favour to a friend. He’s never looked so bored.

Admittedly, Kline is appealing in the role of rogue cop Nick Starkey but he’s constantly hampered by a script that reins him in when it should be unleashing Otto West. Ultimately, The January Man’s uneven tone, lack of genuine mystery and one-dimensional characters are enough to turn off most viewers. That it assembles such a great cast and completely wastes the opportunity condemns it to the lowest reaches of late 1980s American cinema.

Review by Dan Stephens

Directed by: Pat O’Connor
Written by: John Patrick Shanley
Starring: Kevin Kline, Susan Sarandon, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Harvey Keitel, Danny Aiello, Rod Steiger
Released: 1989 / Genre: Comedy-Drama-Thriller / Country: USA / IMDB
Buy from Amazon.co.uk: DVD
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About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    mark Reply

    Using the terms mish mash and haphazard to describe this dog is being nice … I remember squirming uncomfortably when Kline identified part of the murderer’s modus operendi by figuring out the melody.

    Approaching this film from the auteur POV is probably the only way one can do it constructively – otherwise a hapless reviewer might fall into the trap of writing endless sentences of abuse.

    Speaking of which, there is a typo in the text – Polanski directed Frantic, not Hitchcock.

  2. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    Thanks for reading Mark. Argh..! I meant Frenzy not Frantic… 🙂

  3. Avatar
    ruth Reply

    I was intrigued when I saw it’s got Kevin Kline and Alan Rickman but one star?? Eh, that bad huh? That’s too bad. Hey, what’s the jab against Minnie Driver? I like her!

  4. Avatar
    Jack Deth Reply

    Hi, Daniel and company:

    After a few viewings of ‘The January Man’. I get the distinct feeling that some of its better parts for continuity and character development would up on the Cutting Room Floor.

    A great cast in about two thirds of a memorable film.

    A better bet would be ‘Judas Kiss’ from 1998. With Rickman as a New Orleans detective and Emma Thompson as an FBI agent tracking down some local bank heist and kidnapping desperadoes.

  5. Avatar
    Scott Lawlor Reply

    OUCHIES!!

    1 star!! that is a terrible score and for this reason it is not a wonder that I haven’t seen this film!!

  6. Avatar
    sati Reply

    I liked the movie a bit more than you, but found it painfully average. I saw it because I’m a huge fan of Alan Rickman, he was great here, though, very funny.

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