New Rose Hotel ★★★½

2017 movie viewings, #119. As they progress into middle-age and beyond, nearly all humans have misguided interests from their twenties that are ripe for ridicule, ones they look back on with an equal mixture of nostalgia and embarrassment; in my case, for example, I was way more into the late-'80s/early-'90s subject of "cyberpunk" than I should probably be publicly admitting, including (this isn't a joke) a subscription to a short-lived magazine called Future Sex, which each month would interview a series of tech-industry innovators about such subjects as internet-enabled sex toys, performance-enhancing designer drugs, virtual-reality pornography, and all the other prurient little details from Neal Stephenson's shiny black-neon fictional world that me and all my nerdy little friends wished we lived in. (Oh, what I wouldn't have given back then for surgically implanted mirror sunglass eyeballs!)

So needless to say, it was quite a shock indeed when I learned just a few weeks ago that no less than gritty crime director Abel Ferrara (Bad Lieutenant, King of New York) actually made a cyberpunk movie in 1998, directly out of a short story by cyberpunk pioneer William Gibson, and that it stars Christopher Walken, Willem Dafoe, and the hot 22-year-old daughter of giallo director Dario Argento (and who appears naked for like half the running time). How could I have possibly not ever known about this movie when it first came out?! And the answer is that it's...um, well, not very good; and while that didn't stop plenty of other cyberpunk movies from being big hits back in the day anyway (a little Lawnmower Man, anyone? Hey, where are you going?), I guess the combination of its mediocrity and its just-past-the-cultural-expiration-date release (the Dot Com era of the late-'90s effectively killed the Cyberpunk era of the early-'90s, as all that head-spinning technology started getting used to sell more hamburgers) was just enough to produce the ignoble death-by-obscurity that this film doesn't really deserve.

Because to be clear, although it's not that good, New Rose Hotel is actually not that bad either; and if Ferrara had been able to make this movie just six or seven years before he did, it kinda would've blown a lot of people away, not for the special effects but for the heady ideas that it bandies about. One of Gibson's stories set in his "Sprawl" universe (named for his premise that, in the near future, the entire Eastern Seaboard of the US will eventually become one giant unending mass of smoggy highways and decaying suburban mini-malls), the science-fictional conceit here concerns not technology but sociology, specifically the sociology of corporate culture; namely, the idea that in the future, tech innovators will become so important, and corporations will become so powerful, that they will literally be able to devote armed militias and surgically implanted viruses to ensure that no other corporation will be able to poach that employee and bring them over to work for them. And so that means that when a rival corporation does want to poach one of their competitor's employees, instead of the usual fancy dinners, signing-bonus sports car and occasional prostitute that they utilize now, they must assemble an entire team of spies, assassins and surgeons to do an "extraction" of that employee from the rival company, then immediately remove all the malicious "wetware" from his system before their rivals can activate it and murder him.

That's essentially what this movie is, a look at the ex-military con men who head up these kinds of operations, including ringleader Walken who chews up the scenery more here than in almost any other point in his career (the kind of performances Ferrara excels at coaxing out of his men's-men stars); now add some stylish clothes, some smart '90s location shooting at futuristic-looking hotels and office buildings, and some delightfully dated early digital-video footage; and you have what in 1992 would've been considered an extremely smart, cutting-edge, impressively forward-thinking genre film. So too bad for everyone involved, then, that this was actually made in 1998, and that exactly one year later The Matrix would make this look like a laughably cheap and instantly outdated student film. A fun nostalgic watch for recovered trenchcoat-wearing cyberpunks like me, it's unfortunately neither good enough nor cheesy enough to be worth the time of anyone else, absolutely a relic of '90s filmmaking but not in any kind of delightfully terrible or impressively iconic way.

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