The January Man: A few thoughts

The January Man.

One of my favorite movies, because it flips so many genre tropes on its head without ever breaking the fourth wall or mugging for the camera. Rich (read: Insane) characters in a fun setting, doing crazy shit. I often wonder if they just kind of handed the cast the rough outlines of a script and told them to run with it. It has that madcap feel.

If you haven’t seen it lately, you should go watch it. Kevin Kline, Susan Sarandon, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Alan Rickman, Harvey Keitel, Danny Aiello, and Rod Steiger. Best of all, the angst of a man just trying to find a decent espresso. (Movie came out in 1989. Before Starbucks was the thing it later became. When asking for espresso could be a running gag.)

The movie is on my mind this morning because it takes a most interesting path to telling a mystery. Breaks almost all the rules in the process.

The murderer is never a character in the story. Only hardly makes an appearance, at the beginning and end. I had to go look him up. Played by Greg Walker, who was the film’s Stunt Coordinator and has one hell of an impressive IMDB page as a stuntman, running from 1970 to 2001.

That is to say, there is no murderer character in the movie. Instead, you have an All-Star cast alternatively chewing the scenery and bouncing off each other at high speed. And I do mean high speed.

Oh, and trying to figure out a whole OTHER set of crimes. The ones that got Kevin’s character Nick kicked off the police force to the point he had to become a fireman instead.

I’ve always loved this movie, in spite of the shitty reviews it got at the time. Watched it not long ago and it still holds up (assuming you set your mind in 1989, which was a completely different world).

Partly that’s because the movie is told In Media Res (which is the theme and title of a new Business for Breakfast book that just came out). Starting the story in the middle, rather than the long build-up of character development that takes chapters of a book and long stretches of a movie.

There’s a serial killer. Nobody can stop him. The Mayor demands that Police Commissioner Harvey reinstate his disgraced brother (Kevin/Nick) to solve it. Fabulous Publisher Babe™ had never seen the film because she thought it was some taut, psychological thriller, instead of a comedy. And it is a comedy. Alan Rickman playing a Bohemian named Ed, nuff said?

As I thought about it this morning, I realized that Greyson Leigh, the star of the Hunter Bureau novels (with #3 and #4 both coming out shortly), was loosely based on Kevin Kline’s character, except played by Humphrey Bogart at his roughest in Maltese Falcon. (Writer-brain is weird, but that shouldn’t be news to you folks at this point.)

But what got me going this morning was the realization that I don’t often really have villains floating around in my stories. I might have people on the other side, but rarely are they dedicated to evil. Instead, they are just people. Sometimes, the villain is just a bad situation. Or a personal issue to be dealt with in the middle of some mad caper.

But I can get away with it because I like to tell stories like The January Man. Have all the folks on one side of the equation going up against a ghost and trying to outsmart somebody who is not even there.

All the while, they are dealing with their own personal issues and problems that predate the start of the story. (Betrayals, failed romances, balsamic vinegar.) We don’t see Nick getting fired and denounced. We first see him being a hero, a fireman rescuing a kid from a burning building. Ed and Bernadette are mostly innocent and pure as characters, while the entire rest of the cast are some level of sleazeball played with great verve and joy by some amazing actors.

Mostly, I just like the In Media Res part of things. But you should know that about me. I like starting in the middle and just letting the characters fill in details as part of the conversation. (Seriously, the whole movie feels like some fantastic improv group trying to win a bet.) Telling, instead of showing, because that one throwaway line makes people stop and try to envision what really went down off-screen. (Sorry, Josh.)

I can tell a story at speed. Start in the middle, solve the mystery, save the girl, save the day. Never deal with how the characters got where they are.

That’s probably one of the reasons why the critics hated this movie. The other likely being that all the standard tropes get tossed on their heads. For me, I chalk that up to people expecting cops like the Police Commissioner and the Mayor to be heroic figures (obviously, they’ve never actually read the paper or seen the truth about most of those folks, especially NYC). Nick Starkey is more like a private detective here, and brings a PI’s sensibilities to the case. Turned that way, it fits exactly into the mold of those movies.

But there’s no real villain. Just a bad-ass Stunt Coordinator who engages in a fantastic chase sequence with Kevin Klein where they both fall down several flights of stairs.

“Who’s he?” somebody asks at the end as Nick has captured The January Man.

“He’s nobody,” Nick answers.

Because he really is. Nobody. Played by a Stunt Coordinator. And he is a completely different way to tell an old, tired story.

What have you done to turn tropes and expectations on their heads lately?

1 thought on “The January Man: A few thoughts

  1. Joy Kimmel

    I saw that one in an almost empty theater with my gf at the time when it was released. Enjoyed it. I’ll have to look it up, I haven’t seen it since then. I wonder how it holds up to my memory of it

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