What is Neo Noir?
Film Noir is one of the great movie genres. Mainly made up of crime dramas during the forties and fifties, Noir is known for its bleak settings, with flawed and often doomed heroes and femmes fatales. Most people often think of detectives movies, with the private eye narrating over the whole movie. Some of my favorite examples are The Maltese Falcon, Asphalt Jungle, and The Third Man.
Neo Noir refers to the movies done in the same vain, but that were produced from the sixties to the present. Noir, being a sub-genre of crime films, is easily imposed into other genres. Science fiction, comedy, even high school drama can become noir. I'm going to look at some of my favorite examples of Neo Noir, but don't worry if I missed some of yours, that's what the comments are for!
I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I've watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.
Blade Runner is Ridley Scott's science fiction Film Noir. The film came out in 1982 and starred Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard. The movie is set in 2019, in L.A. and has a soundtrack that I found rather annoying until I realized the type of movie I was watching.
Which sums up my experience well. At first, I didn't like the movie. I found it too slow, too dated. The soundtrack annoyed me and I couldn't figure out why this movie was such a big deal. Then, slowly, I began to realize that this was a Film Noir. Deckard isn't a traditional detective, who's trying to solve a crime, but a Blade Runner whose mission is hunting down rogue Replicants. Right there, our hero is flawed. We don't know much about the Replicants he's hunting, we can't be sure they're really that bad, but Deckard's mission is to "retire" them, to kill them. Our "hero" is just a hired killer, though the argument can be made that he's not a killer since the Replicants are simply androids. But, as the movie goes on, we realize how alive these Replicants really are and the moral line becomes grayer.
This isn't a perfect movie and I'm still not sure why it's so well regarded today. I suppose it might just be a time and place movie. If I had been a teenager in the eighties, this movie would have probably been mind-blowing for me. Even still, the way it integrates Noir sensibilities into the future make this is a perfect example of Neo Noir.
I have become the monster you were intended to be.
Dark City is a movie I had only heard about in passing. Few people I have talked to have every seen this movie, which isn't surprising since this 1998 film only made about twenty-seven million dollars it's theatrical life. But when my college's library got this in its collection, I decided to give it a try. Boy, am I glad I did.
This movie has a certain level of insanity to it. The script does things that many films might be to afraid to try, especially during the final act. This is too bad, because much of this movie is brilliant and great to watch. It's one of those movies you start watching and then can't believe went by so fast. Not only that, but it's another great Neo Noir. Our main character is not the detective, that role is given to another in the movie, but he is out to solve a mystery. He's also on the run for a murder he may or may not have committed. The dark mystery has a great turn and the choices our hero makes are not necessarily admirable. I don't want to say much if you haven't seen it, but I can tell you this is a great gem. It's as if The Twilight Zone met Sam Spade.
It's time to prove to your friends that you're worth a damn. Sometimes that means dying, sometimes it means killing a whole lot of people.
Sin City is not just a beautiful movie to look at, it's wonderful throwback to an older type of storytelling. The tales are slower, allowing for doubt and plans to unfold. In a lot of ways, I wish I had enjoyed it more than I did. It's a great movie, but it replicates older movies so well it can often feel old. There are great moments of momentum, but not enough to make a perfect movie.
Still, this is as Neo Noir as they come. Mostly black and white, the heroes are the bottom of the barrel, they narrate, and their women are their biggest threat. More than one of the main heroes is a tragic figure, unable to fix the problem because the problem is too big. All they can really do is put a band-aid over the issue and move on. The soundtrack itself seems to have come from the fifties.
This isn't a surprise, since the movie is an almost panel-for-panel recreation of a Frank Miller comic. Miller excels at Noir, as can be seen by his run on Daredevil and Batman: Year One. He loves the smoky bar rooms, the crooked cops, and the women who kill you with a kiss. This movie has it all but with a harsher attitude. If you want to see how Noir has grown, while still retaining its true nature, watch Sin City.
Or watch this video mash up I made of the Sin City trailer and Cowboy Bebop (another great example of Neo Noir)
No, bulls would gum it. They'd flash their dusty standards at the wide-eyes and probably find some yegg to pin, probably even the right one. But they'd trample the real tracks and scare the real players back into their holes, and if we're doing this I want the whole story. No cops, not for a bit.
Brick proves that you can't limit Noir is this day in age. Taking place in a modern day high school, Brick keeps and even perfects the vibe of The Asphalt Jungle. Our main here is Brendan, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and he's out to solve the murder of his ex-girlfriend.
This movie takes the elements of Noir and brings it to the local high school. There is a snoop to talk to, there's a character named Tug who harnesses the spirit of Sterling Hayden. There's a dangerous girl with a secret and there's a local kingpin. The movie doesn't talk down to you, even with the setting, but centers around murder and drugs. The dialog is written in a way that sounds like it's read out of an old crime novel. It can be hard to keep up but the lines are so juicy it's worth it.
Gordon-Levitt is phenomenal in this movie. He isn't mimicking other hard-boiled detectives, he is one. Brendan isn't a particular threatening kid, but he's smart and braver than others think. He's driven by the murder of his ex and the guilt of turning his friend over to the authorities. Brendan is a wonderful addition to the world of Neo Noir heroes. The climax of the film, at the Pin's house, is intense and will leave you wanting more of our hero.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Doesn't that suck? I just hit you for no reason. I don't even know why.
Film Noir doesn't always have to be a serious affair; sometimes it can be as funny as the come. Case and point, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is one of the most hilarious movies out there, but its humor never loses the grip on true Noir. Our hero, Harry Lockhart, is a thief turned actor turned detective, and is teamed with real private eye Perry. Starring Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer, respectively, the back and forth dialog of this movie is quick and brilliant, often requiring you to rewind from all the laughter.
Harry narrates the movie completely aware that he's in a movie, but also that he's in a mystery/crime film. He keeps us up with the events, all while breaking the fourth wall and talking to the audience. He's a charming, likable hero who is much nobler than the world will see him. The problem is, he isn't just over his head, but he's fairly incompetent with most situations. Luckily, Perry finds him to be a decent guy and keeps him safe, but the two don't really get along. This is a buddy film, but it’s blanketed in a real pulp mystery.
The movie never lets the humor overwhelm the story and the ending is extremely satisfying, both of them. This is one of those movies you'll want to show to all your friends and gets better with each viewing. It's a movie that deserves a sequel but keeps you happy with being a standalone.
But that's not all...
While these are my top picks for Neo Noir, there are plenty of others to mention. Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Chinatown, Dick Tracy, and almost any film by Christopher Nolan. Noir is a chameleon of a genre, able to look like another while keeping its true self.