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(1996) *** R
108 min. Gramercy. Directors: Jeff Reiner, Andrea Kampic, Rawn Hutchinson. Cast: Michael Madsen, Patricia Arquette, Florence Stanley, Seymour Cassel, Sal Jenco.

When Hollywood releases a film about two lesbians, one must at the very least sit up and take notice. The thriller Bound is certainly a strange creature, and rarely boring.

This is the directorial debut of Larry and Andy Wachowski, the Wachowski brothers to you (it's trendy for brothers to make films together: the Coens, the Zuckers, the Hughes). The Wachowskis also wrote the film (previously, they penned the bomb Assassins; since, their stock exploded with The Matrix), and it is impressive in many ways. Bound is stylistic heir to the Coen Brothers' Blood Simple, which spawned endless neo-noir rip-offs, including the memorable Shallow Grave, and John Dahl's Red Rock West and The Last Seduction. Like those earlier films, Bound is self-consciously operatic and overblown in the intimate manner of a low-budget film; it's to the Wachowskis' credit that while the film rarely strays from two adjoining rooms, there's precious little opportunity to lose interest.

The film opens in a closet (the first hint that the Wachowskis can wink good-naturedly at their subject), where Corky (Gina Gershon) lies bound and gagged. As we flash back to Corky's droll narration, we discover how she met Violet (Jennifer Tilly), the mob moll next door to the apartment she's been painting for a living. Violet wants out of the mob life, but she has to wiggle out from under her boyfriend Caesar (Joe Pantoliano) first. The two make a plan to get out of town with the mob's money in tow.

The depiction of the lesbian heroines is a breakthrough of sorts, though they are as much anti-heroines, capable of a wide variety of criminal acts. Many will see their love affair as a redeeming factor; others may mistakenly take it as another sordid symptom of their criminal lifestyle. Even if the lesbian affair is intended as merely a titillating gimmick for male heterosexual audiences, the characters are more than stock lesbians. Certainly, the film challenged Hollywood's squeamish stand on homosexuality, if in a genre which made it palatable (still not too many lesbian romantic comedies or gay romantic subplots in big-budget action films).

Gershon may have sealed her fate as an actress by playing so many actresses in a row (Basic Instinct and Showgirls preceded Bound), but she found her largest and best film role in Corky (admittedly, that's not saying much). Despite the unfortunate name, Gershon believably reveals Corky to be intensely smart, world-weary, and unhappy in her dreary job and lonely existence (established in a quick survey of a lesbian bar). Tilly (Oscar-nominated for Bullets Over Broadway) proves to be an acquired taste with her breathy squeak of a voice. But her combination of sexual wattage and mental dim-bulb suits Violet well, and once you're past the initial discomfort (yes, that is her voice), Tilly insinuates herself securely into the reality of the film. Similarly, Joe Pantoliano (Memento, The Matrix) seems this close to doing a Joe Pesci impression: a good one, but an impression nonetheless. But when the film kicks into sweaty palm-inducing high gear in its second half, it becomes clear that Pantoliano is a tragicomic Othello. It's a superb study in fear and volatile paranoia, and a witty one, at that.

The supporting cast is surprisingly strong here. Perhaps the biggest joy of the film is John Ryan's nuanced turn in the relatively small role of mob honcho Mickey; simultaneously nice-guy sensitive and tolerant of mob brutality, he's sweetly infatuated with Violet.

The Wachowskis deliver in terms of the clever plot and fun twists in the second half. But it should be noted that the film is ludicrous, and always teetering on the edge of parody. The courtship between Tilly and Gershon is occasionally laughable, but the film is a thriller, after all, and loses interest. The love story disappears into the caper plotline, except as a device. The Wachowskis are, like their characters, interested in making crime pay. There are a couple of intensely violent scenes which caused some walkouts (fewer audiences seem to mind the sex scene - MPAA, take note), and enough clever goings-on to recommend the film. For its low budget, Bound is handsomely produced, with impressive camera movement and sharp set design.

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