Rosie Perez and Javier Bardem in 1997's "Dance with the Devil."

Dance with the Devil November 1, 2021

DIRECTED BY

Álex de la Iglesia

STARRING

Rosie Perez

Javier Bardem

James Gandolfini

Harley Cross

Amy Graham

 

RATED

R

RELEASED IN

1997

 

RUNNING TIME

 2 Hrs., 6 Mins.

S

peeding down the highway inside a beat-up and eccentrically decorated truck — windshield framed with rainbow Christmas lights, seats sleeved in greasy cow print, steering wheel substituted for a circular chain — Rosie Perez and Javier Bardem look just about perfect together. In Dance with the Devil (1997), a splashy and eventful lovers-on-the-run comedy-thriller, they play Perdita and Romeo, a newly together couple

from hell who in the course of the film will involve themselves in bank robberies, murder, fraudulent Santería rituals, shootouts, and smugglings, mostly for a laugh. “They’re the devil!” one stunned almost-victim warns onlookers after he’s freed from their clutches. “I saw it in their eyes.” 

 

As this couple from hell, Perez and Bardem almost always visually complement each other in a ying-yang sense. Long, black, Bettie Page-like hair; Tura Satana-suggesting all-black clothes (the demonically confident Romeo’s trademark is thigh-squeezing leather pants); faces often at the same time fixed in a wicked grin when something terrible is happening. Perez and Bardem look, not to sound unimaginative, cool as hell like this. They know it, too. These actors are practically swaggering around — like rock-’n’-roll peacocks — in Dance with the Devil. You believe they’re having the times of their lives play-acting career chaos-making; Bardem’s adopted cackle never sounds forced. You get the sense, watching their performances, that maybe the second Bardem and Perez put on their initial costumes they knew exactly what to do and where to go with these characters. When Perez, lethal-looking with her black acrylics wrapped around a refreshed cigarette, announces that “the greatest pleasures in life are fucking and killing,” she sounds like a woman possessed.
   

Dance with the Devil is a busy movie; its narrative poses so many potential problems for the characters they could practically form a line. Before Perdita even meets Romeo, he’s just robbed a bank, and the partners he betrayed are looking for him. The film’s writer and director, Álex de la Iglesia, knows that this and a new romance can’t carry a movie, so he heaps on more convolutions. Perdita and Romeo spontaneously decide, early in the movie, to kidnap a young and cartoonishly wholesome suburban couple (Amy Graham and Harley Cross), mostly, at first, because Perdita is suddenly fixated on the idea of dominating someone tan, tall, and muscular. It doesn’t hurt that, to Romeo’s eye, Perdita’s kidnapping-victim idyll, spotted from their parked truck, apparently comes attached with a human Barbie. (Like the couple that whisks them off the street by gun, these kids are also visually consonant: with their well-washed corn-blonde hair and soft red-and-pink shirts, they’re like Archie comic-book counterpoints.) Perdita and Romeo aren’t looking for ransom money: they want to use these moon-eyed kids who believe their victimhood has something to do with reverse racism for a sacrificial ceremony. 

 

A little while later, Romeo agrees to help a local crime kingpin (Don Stroud) intercept a Las Vegas-bound semi full of refrigerated human fetuses to be eventually sold as the primary, albeit secret, ingredient of a pricey face cream. The payout for Romeo is big. A hungry DEA agent (a standout James Gandolfini) hungrily monitors the couple in the meantime; he bungles attempted arrests enough times that he ends the movie looking like the cat from Tom and Jerry at a single episode’s climax. The father of one of the kidnapped teens is also trailing behind though in only intuitive terms, convinced his connection with his child is strong enough that he will be almost karmically led to them. (Optimism, though, is rarely rewarded in this movie; it’s almost a sign of weakness.)
   

There’s so much going on at all times in Dance with the Devil that it’s a surprise when, after the first few punchy sequences — which see abrasive comedy and pulp-style thrills cohabitating happily — a flabbiness sets in that never burns off. Many scenes feel a note or two too long. Most of the subplots are underdeveloped — like de la Iglesia and his co-writers loved the idea of throwing them in but were much less passionate about making them feel fuller than a notion. And they’re sequentially too spread out sometimes, to the point that you may forget an earlier narrative detour had been introduced at all. 

 

Yet I wouldn’t call Dance with the Devil a total failure. Its sturdy world-building, animated performances, and consistent sense of dark humor suggest that all it would have taken for it to change directions and hoof it a little closer to greatness was more heartlessness in the cutting room, snipping away unnecessary asides and character details and really interrogating which scenes vitally propel the plot and which are little more than added decoration. As dissatisfying on a scene-to-scene basis as it can be, I finished Dance with the Devil with affection for it — for Perez and Bardem’s immediately indelible (both visually and temperamentally) couple on the run, for de la Iglesia’s singular melding of genres and tones without losing his place. (His problem is with pacing, with attachments to gratuitous detail he oughtn’t have.) De la Iglesia’s images are always vibrant, too. The last few we see in Dance with the Devil are in fact so ascendant — they’re of Perez crying softly as she stumbles through throbbing-neon Vegas streets — that this chronically defective movie momentarily feels like an absolute success. B-