In the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1990 and seven from 2000 (the extra in a forthcoming double-feature column). The self-imposed rules of the column: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films that were among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.
After consecutive years of critical acclaim and ascending stardom thanks to No Way Out, The Untouchables and Bull Durham, 1990 was shaping up to be Kevin Costner’s coronation.
By mid-1988, Costner was one of Hollywood’s hottest leading men. But he was itching to shake the preconceptions that corn-fed nobility and raffish charm were his only moves. Anxious to channel something darker, Costner believed he’d found the perfect project — one he intended to jump into just a month after finishing Field of Dreams. Costner would make his directorial debut, too, on this adaptation of a literary property that had languished in development.
“The story was manageable,” Costner told The New York Times of this project, “but the themes were big and universal, and the writing was tough and it was honest and it was original. There was poignance in the story, and it read like an original movie to me.”
Of course, Dances with Wolves went on to win seven Oscars — including Best Picture and, for his first time out, Best Director for Costner. But he didn’t film that until 1989.
So … which one got away?
It was Revenge — based on a novella by Jim Harrison, who also co-wrote the screenplay for this R-rated tale of illicit lust, betrayed friendship and violent retaliation. The project had passed through many famous hands — John Huston, Jack Nicholson, Jeff Bridges, Don Johnson, Orson Welles, Jonathan Demme, Walter Hill and Sydney Pollack among them. Costner did eventually star but yielded the director’s chair to stylistic renegade Tony Scott — hot off Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop II — after producer Ray Stark felt Costner wasn’t yet ready.
This finished incarnation also was touted as a triumphant return for Old Hollywood icon Anthony Quinn — playing Tiburon “Tibby” Mendez, a Mexican kingpin of whom Costner’s Navy fighter pilot Jay Cochrane runs afoul after Jay sleeps with Tibby’s much younger wife, Miryea (Madeleine Stowe).
The result? Revenge became Costner’s first flop as a star — slammed as a vanity project by Entertainment Weekly, “soft and aimless” by The New York Times, and “so cynical that nothing has meaning” by The Washington Post. It also finished with a paltry $15 million box office.
And yet for a film at best relegated to bargain-bin ignominy, you can choose your cut of Revenge in today’s marketplace. The Stark- and studio-sanctioned 124-minute version originally released to theatres is available digitally. Scott’s 2007 recut, which runs a full 24 minutes shorter, was released to Blu-ray in 2007. The latter even comes with a gushing cover blurb from Quentin Tarantino (whose True Romance script Scott went on to direct in 1993), calling it the director’s masterpiece. Not entirely sure what Tarantino is on about there; Scott hardly reinvented the wheel by drizzling scuzz, sex and stunning vistas over 1940s potboiler melodrama. Hell, Against All Odds did it a few years earlier than this crew albeit less salaciously.
Although the narrative is nearly identical in either cut, their tones are markedly different. Unsurprisingly, Scott’s merciless edit offers a stiffer wind to Stark’s occasional gusts of gall. The original version wanted women to walk out of the theater wishing for a man like Jay who would endure all of that heartache and pain for them. Scott stripped away nearly all of the get-to-know-you moments between Jay and Miryea, casting their coupling as an animalistic indulgence of impulse and idiocy — more shiv than chivalrous.
Both versions begin like an ersatz Top Gun sequel because when the Navy gives you access to F-14s, you’re not going to bury that footage deep in your otherwise-downbeat drama. It’s meant to establish Jay as a risk-taker, of course — skirting Mexican airspace without a care and nauseating his poor co-pilot. But Scott cannily juxtaposes it in his version by intercutting Icarus-fallen close-ups of a bloodied Jay baking on the sort of desert floor over which we’re seeing him fly. It dilutes the heroism of “The World’s Greatest Pilot” (as Jay is feted before retiring) with eventual hubris that will find him barely holding on to life. Perhaps it’s also a bit of an in-joke that Jay’s biggest showboating maneuver pops up over Costner’s executive producer credit.
After a speech with square edges that, in hindsight, feel deliberately insincere, Jay heads off to Tibby’s sprawling compound in Puerto Vallarta. So, how did a hotshot Navy fighter pilot and a crime boss able to pull strings in Mexican politics become soul-kiss friends? Good question. The original throws out a line about Jay saving Tibby’s life on a hunting trip. (All right, how did they end up on a hunting trip? Nothing? OK.)
Scott just omits such mentions altogether. It’s also unclear in either version as to whether Jay is there for a job or a jaunt. His friends wonder why he’s leaving military service to be an errand boy for a kingpin. But Jay insists to Tibby’s cadre of attendants that he’s just on vacation. In this regard, both cuts are in a humid, hazy hurry to rush Jay into Miryea’s arms.
In the original, it happens after Jay quotes some Lorca poetry in Spanish much to Miryea’s delight. By then, Miryea has also cornered Tibby — at least two generations older than she is — about the prospect of parenthood. Tibby had a dozen kids before Miryea was even born, so he’s not interested, and his further comments about Miryea’s body make it clear: She is but a trophy on which to carve his initials, literally if he must. As further illustration of Tibby’s ill temperament, he also assaults a full-sized Doberman after it turns a bomber jacket Jay has gifted him into a chew toy.
Scott slashes all of this, too, leaving only Miryea’s explanation of her quasi-arranged marriage to Tibby and condensing a longer moment when she helps Jay make lemonade — a banal, but tranquil, domesticity she’ll never have with Tibby. But hey, who needs any of that when you could instead watch Costner and Stowe smash into each other at more carnally invasive angles than 1990 big-studio mores would allow?
The Blu-ray extras feature Costner, Stowe and Scott discussing a lack of rehearsal or choreography in the sex scenes — all the better for spontaneously smacking bodies or a frenzy of wet fingers in lots of places. But it ultimately works against the story beats in Scott’s cut. (More on that in a bit.)
It’s not long before Tibby shows up at Jay’s remote cabin, where he’s trysting the night away with Miryea. And he’s brought his goon squad — who shoot Jay’s dog and send Jay to death’s door; Tibby himself cuts Miryea’s face and sends her to a brothel to spend her remaining days in sexual servitude. Of course, Jay is saved and nursed back to health by a kindly family with whom to convalesce before he decides to cowboy up, rescue Miryea and take down Tibby.
Scott arrives here at 45 minutes to the original’s 71, which also means the original takes much longer to introduce the traditionally colorful supporting characters that often dot the periphery of Scott’s work. Here, it’s James Gammon (best remembered as Cleveland Indians manager Lou Brown in Major League) bringing his gravelly tones to a horse trader known as the Texan, Miguel Ferrer and John Leguizamo as hatchet-men eager to help Jay strike back at Tibby, and Sally Kirkland as a faded-glory rock star on a last-ditch tour in Mexico.
In both cuts, Gammon’s character would seem to affect a cautionary tone: Jay is headed down a long, lonely road to become this guy with his dry cough, wet perspirations and dubious ministrations. After a rough night where an unseen woman rolls the Texan for a lot of money and just a bit less blood, the Texan asks Jay what he looks like. “A survivor,” Jay quickly replies.
A more intriguing movie, in either incarnation, would interrogate this curious idolatry Jay develops for the less-principled life. But then again: Since becoming a star, when has Kevin Costner ever done something good in which we’re supposed to wonder about his moral allegiances? (No Way Out precedes his fame, and yeah he’s played a villain before, but you roll your own dice with 3,000 Miles to Graceland or Mr. Brooks, my friends.) Perhaps more than anything else Costner has ever done, the original cut of Revenge finds him walking that line, particularly during his abrasive interactions with Kirkland’s character; Scott instead trims Kirkland’s screen time to the barest explanation of her presence during pivotal exposition.
While the theatrical cut hints (however halfheartedly) at an intriguing wrinkle for Jay, Scott’s version gives further dimensions to Tibby — mostly absent in the original after his violent interruption of the affair. The kingpin clearly has personal reservations about what he’s done, but he also conveys the weary resignation of having to ride it out. There’s enough here about Tibby’s political machinations — and failed coups against them — to establish that for him, loyalty, fear and respect are of greater value than romantic affection. His greatest rush is to be the poobah, the padre, the benefactor. To reverse course and spare Miryea would reveal an empire-crushing weakness.
There’s arguably more to this in Scott’s thesis than there is to Jay’s pretend-outlaw in the original; at the very least, Scott uses it to sell a finale that plays out the same way in both films — just anticlimactically in the original.
Sadly, neither version makes time for Miryea as anything other than a prop for hotheads and boneheads. At the brothel, she is regularly raped (by one of Tibby’s minions), beaten (presumably by many people) and drugged into docility. This is repugnant enough before a virulent strain of ’90s gay panic factors into Miryea’s story; plus, of all the things for a movie so explicit to do a chickenshit dance around, it’s this aspect? Quite honestly, the outcome here drags both versions into a deeper muck than necessary, and 17 years of more sophisticated storytelling was enough time for Scott to work around it or without it.
Scott’s model is more aesthetic, aerodynamic and aggressive, but Stark’s handles the road better. Those last-act professions of love (again, easily edited out or around) clang so hard in Scott’s version; given that Scott makes it feel like a fling, those final moments between Jay and Miryea should feel only like the least he could do for her. At the same time, Stark’s cut makes the same bits feel like Jay’s noble reclamation of purpose and heroism rather than the ruinous result of his foolhardy pride.
So which one is better? Honestly, it’s a push. Both convey the idea that a frontiers that seems to beg for your claim is likely to leave your brain on the rocks. Neither sacrifices the astonishing compositions from Scott and cinematographer Jeffrey L. Kimball — so much hard light and deep pockets of shadow in which to lose your way that it’s a shame Scott never made a proper Western before his death in 2012. Each makes deeply questionable choices but not one worse than the other. Only if you’re curious about directors’ cuts illustrating the limitations of inherently mediocre material should you seek Revenge.