By Dan Krovich
November 20, 2002
Steven Soderbergh delves full-fledged into noir with The Underneath, a
remake of the Burt Lancaster film Criss Cross and based on the Don Tracy
novel of the same title. Soderbergh does take certain liberties with the
noir genre, specifically in the narrative structure as he chooses
to tell the story in a non-linear fashion through a series of flashbacks and flash
forwards. The end result is a somewhat cold and sterile film that shows
a stylistic flare, yet lacks heart at its core.
The central story involves Michael Chambers (Peter Gallagher), who returns to
town to celebrate his mother's new marriage years after he was run out
because of gambling debts. He is determined to make things work this time,
and his new stepfather gets him a job working as an armored car driver. As
he re-assimilates, he settles on trying to win back his ex-wife, Rachel
(Alison Elliot), only to discover that she is now engaged to a local
hoodlum. His heart leads him into a predicament that forces him to concoct
a scheme to arrange a heist of his armored car shipment.
In the meantime, we cut from the main story of Michael's return to town to
flash back to the events that caused his initial exile and loss of his wife
and flash forward to the heist. The result can be a little jarring, though
different time periods are clearly delimited by specific clear-cut color
palettes and filming styles. In this case, the jumping around in time is
only somewhat successful. When we meet Michael, the simple explanation of
his past is enough for us to get a pretty good idea about what went on, so
the flashbacks don't particularly add to our knowledge.
The one aspect for which they do perhaps serve some use is to establish the
relationship between Michael and Rachel. This relationship is certainly
critical because it drives every decision that Michael makes, but even that
is somewhat superfluous because Gallagher and Elliot have immediate
chemistry that belies an earlier relationship. It is easy to believe Rachel
as Michael's femme fatale without the explicit back-story. In some ways
this added exposition is out of character for Soderbergh, who often likes to
leave things more vague, though in other ways it fits into his penchant for
Ultimately, though the romantic relationship is convincing, the strict
adherence to the noir style makes The Underneath deliberate and aloof. It
is technically and stylistically accomplished. It looks great and features
some eye-catching scenes, particularly one that takes place in a hospital
room, but it aggressively keeps the audience at an arms length.
The Underneath is perhaps Soderbergh's least successful film artistically.
It's hard to put a finger on any specific elements as failures in the film,
but it tends to lack an overall intensity, so it plays like the work of a
talented, but detached filmmaker.