William Gibson’s short story “New Rose Hotel” has been a Holy Grail for directors in love with the ominous, seamy atmosphere of futuristic noir. Kathryn Bigelow had it on her agenda for a decade, but financing of Blade Runner proportions proved elusive. Two years ago, Abel Ferrara took over the project, cowrote a down-and-dirty adaptation that could be made for next to nothing, and cast Willem Dafoe and Christopher Walken in the leading roles. With two such icons of decadence in place and a director whose entire oeuvre seemed to lead him to the precincts of the New Rose Hotel (“a coffin rack . . . in a concrete lot off the main road to the airport”), the film seemed foolproof.
Instead, what’s on the screen is so dreadful that it inspires the ontological question “What are films and why is this not one of them?” Not that New Rose Hotel doesn’t have its moments, but most of them are inspired by utter desperation. There will always be a special place in my heart for Walken’s aborted soft-shoe routine or the image of Dafoe, lying on his pallet in the New Rose, sorting through the discards from his lost love’s handbag. On such occasions, you can see how New Rose Hotel might have achieved a level of cinematic meltdown to rival Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures. But instead, commercial considerations appear to have pushed the film, such as it is, into softcore porn with much baring of breasts (though no dick), several threesomes, and, as I counted, one fivesome involving an utterly passive Dafoe and four Japanese beauties, filmed, mercifully, in long shot.
The narrative is archetypical noir. Walken plays Fox, a broken-down middleman in the world of high-tech industrial espionage, who enlists the help of X (Dafoe), his loyal disciple, in a risky scheme to get Hiroshi, the star research scientist of a German company, to defect to its Japanese rival. The lure is Sandii (Asia Argento), a gorgeous hooker who needs to convince Hiroshi that she’s in love with him so that he’ll give up his job, his wife, and everything else to please her. Fox’s instruction to X: “You have to teach her to fall in love without falling in love yourself.” The nature of the libido is such that, on receiving an order, it will do the opposite. Which is how X winds up alone at the New Rose, running images of Sandii in his paranoid imagination and wondering exactly when her betrayal began.
Left high and dry by their director, who seems to have been unable to provide them with a context for their characters’ actions, the actors try in various ways to cope. Walken, who gave one of the greatest performances in film history in Ferrara’s King of New York, feints and parries with gutter wisecracks and deranged stares. Dafoe stoically distances himself behind an expression of universal pity. Argento has the easiest job since she only has to look inviting, which she does. What the film lacks, however, is any sense of heat, even of the imploded dark-star variety.