Midnight Heat (2007)
For whatever reason, I just felt the need to review something of a different style, a different whatever from everything I’ve been doing lately. I’ve come to find that what I most enjoy spotlighting here are films that are hidden gems. Stuff that’s not too widely known, but is of a certain admirable quality. I really like allowing others to discover movies through my reviews, and that’s not going to happen reviewing Star Wars or Terminator movies. Showcasing something that also inspires me as a filmmaker on a more personal level is the other thing I gravitated towards with this review. I’ve previously reviewed the film Paranoia from internet comedic personality and independent filmmaker Brad Jones. Midnight Heat is a 2007 feature length effort from him that was made with a lower grade production value, but for me, the quality of the writing, most of the acting, and the direction really shines through the very rough digital video camcorder, micro-budget quality of the movie. This is the type of movie that really inspires me and drives me to be a creative and ambitious filmmaker. Seeing someone else achieve this with even less resources than I have today is further inspiration, but let’s breakdown the plot of this sleazy 1980’s exploitation film homage first.
Midnight Heat is a story of cops, hookers, killers, and pimps; all centered around one sleazy night in the late 1980’s. A cocaine addicted homicide detective (Jake Norvell) is brought out of suspension in order to trail local prostitute Donna Diggs (Bianca Queen) who may become the next victim of The Scalper (Nick Foster), a serial killer who preys on the city’s hookers. Meanwhile, her mentally unstable pimp Martin (Brad Jones) attempts to get out of the business while finding it harder to protect his girls from both the killer and from an abusive rival pimp (Buford Stowers).
I will make one preface about the technical quality of Midnight Heat and the relative standards of quality I judge this by. I’ve both been an independent filmmaker for several years, and have watched these types of movies since the late 90’s. In this realm, you make the best story you can make with the equipment and resources you have at your disposal. Not every independent filmmaker has the cash to buy boom mics, pro lighting gear, or a high quality camcorder. If all you have is a Digital Hi8 camcorder and a solid screenplay, you go for it. It may indeed be difficult for some to acclimate themselves into the experience, but if you can get beyond the digital grain from the low lighting and less than perfect audio, there is a very entertaining and well written sleazy crime thriller waiting for you. The film is only available, completely free, through Brad Jones’ website. So, all it costs you is time to give it a chance.
This film is Brad’s tribute to 1980s sleaze flicks like Vice Squad, Savage Streets, and The Exterminator while taking strong vibes from Miami Vice. This really translates from both the story being soaked in the nighttime world of sex, drugs, and murder, and the choice of soundtrack. The reason the movie is only available for online viewing is because it features tons of unlicensed 1980s pop songs. I greatly used these sorts of songs as temp music for my feature film The Fixer, and I wish I could commercially release it with those tracks because they perfectly capture the vibe I was going for. Brad Jones was just interested in putting the film out there without a mind towards commercial release. With it being specifically set in 1987, I couldn’t imagine Midnight Heat working without these era-specific tracks. Songs from Glenn Frey, Phil Collins, The Cars, Scandal, Loverboy, Kim Carnes, Animotion, and many more pulsate throughout this movie. They are the entire score, and it instills the film with energy and a very familiar emotional feeling for me. At times, it would be preferable if the songs were lower in the mix so they don’t compete too strongly against the dialogue, but the music never drowns it out. Brad Jones did the best he could with the actual production sound, as is stated in his intro video to the movie on his website. Still, if there’s one thing that could’ve been improved, it is just the mixing of music and sound effects around the dialogue. Often gunshots and other dramatic sound effects don’t have the sonic impact they should have, but I am able to forgive and move beyond that to understand the intentions on display. If this was a multi-million dollar budgeted film with professional sound engineers, you could rightfully attack that with great zeal, but not in this case, not at all.
While most of the cast are not professional actors, we are treated to some very strong and substantive performances. Jake Norvell’s Detective Rick Wilson is the perfect sleazy 1980s corrupt cop. A cocaine snorting, prostitute indulging, foul mouthed burn out that is distrusted by the police department, and is stuck with an assignment no one else cares about. Norvell appropriately portrays him in an over the top fashion in a performance that really dominates a lot of the movie. This is a character of ego and abrasiveness, but also has that tinge of emotional value. Norvell intensely portrays the erratic, substance abusing behavior of Wilson making him an unpredictable wild card. This repeatedly complicates matters with Donna, but there’s always that sordid emotional connection between them that really pulls them together. Norvell’s performance grows and solidifies in the third act, and becomes damn near powerhouse in a very fun, indulgent way. He’s really feeling the energy of this character throughout, but it is punched up in that last twenty-five minutes.
Bianca Queen is quite good as the female lead. She brings a lot toughness and grit to Donna, but is not at all afraid to delve into the required sleaze of the role. She holds her ground very solidly opposite Norvell, and the relationship they strike is combative, yet complicated. She wonderfully conveys the sordid, argumentative history between Donna and Rick without ever backing down. She also slinks very enthusiastically into the sexy, seductive aspects of the character. Ultimately, by the end, we see even more depth from Queen that makes her standout beautifully next to her male co-stars of Jones and Norvell.
Obviously, I am a major fan of Brad Jones’ work, and for very good reason. The man is exceptionally talented as both a writer and actor. In the role of Martin, he is channeling something complex and intriguing. He’s this pimp that tries to run a good operation, but just wants to find a clean way out of this life. Yet, this is the night that everything is deconstructing around him. The stress pulls at him too agonizingly, and he can’t help but crack over and over again. Jones portrays this character with a strong wealth of sympathy that transcends all the irredeemable violence Martin inflicts, but also brings plenty of weight in a role that gradually slips into being an antagonistic force. The trippy dream sequence Martin has really pushes the idea of the fracturing psyche even further. Jones is entirely convincing as an intimidating presence, but that complex nature regularly comes back into play where Martin is not just on a violent rampage. He can be a relatable character when baring his soul, but Jones’ performance is never too far removed from that psychologically messed up behavior. By the end, both sides of the character mesh together greatly with some smartly written dialogue and ideas. Overall, Jones’ performance is a major highlight of the movie.
Buford Stowers is a great heavy as the ruthless pimp Phil. He carries himself with a weighty presence and a good measure of sleaze-laden charisma. Every scene he has is punctuated with an aggressive authority. Stowers throws his all into the role, but keeps it grounded and intimidating. He feels like a serious threat that no one would risk crossing. Stowers and Jones have excellent chemistry as rival pimps, and have some solid scenes together.
The remainder of the cast has some good performances including Kim West as Nikki, Phil’s premiere working girl. Sarah Lewis always impresses me in Jones’ films with her best performance coming as the lead in The Hooker With A Heart of Gold. Here, she has only a few scenes as Donna’s friend Mindy, but it is very well acted on all levels. Alex Shyrock is very good as Detective Mike Nero who is a cop who doesn’t seem like he gives much of a damn anymore, and doesn’t enjoy having to screw around with Wilson throughout the night. Shyrock has that right stressed out, frayed quality showing that Nero is sick and tired of this Scalper case, and just wants it done with however possible.
The most substantive scene is when Martin and Rick cross paths and have a lengthy conversation together. Both men lay out their troubles, how they got to where they are now, and talking frankly about what has damaged them. Jones and Norvell put in excellent performances here. The two are great, close friends in real life, and that chemistry shows through. It’s a fairly brief pair of scenes between them, but it is a solid turning point that motivates the characters into the third act.. Their confrontation at the film’s end is equally as good.
Handheld camera work is the standard here, as is Jones’ style. He has said that he relies on this so much due to the fact of having only the built-in microphone on his camcorder to record audio. So, he regularly needs to have the camera close-in on the actors to get consistent audio. Still, while the framing can regularly be a little too tight when trying to pan between two actors, and the handheld being a little rough, there are many scenes with quite good camera angles and editing. For the most part, the flow of the movie is very good with only a few rough transitions here and there. I can entirely see that if Jones had the right equipment and the ability to refine his technical quality, this would be a greatly polished movie on all levels.
I really like movies with intercutting stories. They inherently create an energy that propels the narrative forward with great rhythm. Midnight Heat regularly cuts between Martin’s descent into self-destruction and Rick and Donna’s turbulent night together. Both stories parallel one another until they eventually intersect and collide. This structure works beautifully, and maintains a streamlined flow throughout. Jones writes very vibrant and interesting characters with some excellent dialogue. Midnight Heat is an exploitation film through and through, but the quality of the writing is comparable to that of a Michael Mann film like Thief or Collateral. Characters are dimensional and feel quite real and textured. This is the real strength of the movie, and it is what immensely impresses me about it. As I said, beyond the rough, low grade technical qualities there is a wealth of talent on display fueled by Jones’ amazingly written script. There is substance in this story. It never falls back on letting the sleaze weigh down the film for a fun, cheap thrill. Jones absolutely was putting his best dramatic effort forward, and it shows through. That’s what I think makes for a great independent filmmaker – to have the quality of your talent and vision shine through even the most rugged of technical shortcomings.
While I believe Brad has stated that directing isn’t his favorite part of the process, I do believe he put together a cohesive and well directed movie here. While everyone cast in the movie is part of his wide circle of friends, he is able to make the best use of them in key roles, and they gave him their best. The compressed time frame of the film also creates an energy and momentum not too unlike Michael Mann’s Collateral. Everything occurs over a single night, and that creates a compact, compounded intensity that builds as the film progresses. I used to have many extremely late nights out to where I didn’t know late night from early morning anymore, and Midnight Heat gradually captures that feeling in its third act. The film narrows out its cast of characters, and focuses in on its leads of Rick, Donna, and Martin enhancing the sense of isolation and loneliness of those hours of the night. The climax is not action based, but character based. It brings everything to a head in a very solid and satisfying way.
I strongly believe Midnight Heat to be one of Brad Jones’ best films. The writing is excellent and the full cast really puts their all into it. I love the neo noir style of it all taking place at night. It soaks you deep into this grimy, dark world, and that’s just perfectly my style. There’s very little action in the movie as it is built and driven by its characters, which are excellently developed and realized. At nearly an hour and forty minutes, I think this is a well put together independent film that was made with a lot of passion and enthusiasm. At the time he posted this on his website in July of 2011, Brad stated this to be his favorite film out of all the ones he had made up to that point. Knowing him as well as I do through his website, this really is where his love of film is the strongest, and I’m intrigued to know that a sequel is planned, likely for this year. It was a combination of seeing this movie and Brad’s v-log movie review of Drive that got me to see that brilliant movie which is now one of my favorites of all time. Coincidentally, the opening credits to Drive are nearly identical to those of Midnight Heat, same font and all.
As I said, you can exclusively watch Midnight Heat on Brad’s website for free. Clearly, I give the movie a very strong recommendation for anyone that enjoys neo noir crime thrillers or the sleazier side of 1980s cinema. You can watch the rather low quality trailer here. Give it a few minutes of your time, and see if it appeals to your interests.