Kansas City has the makings of a 1930s B-movie. It's reminiscent of those hour-long crime flicks with no big stars except maybe Warren William. Trouble is, Kansas City, released in 1996 and directed by the inimitable Robert Altman, lasts for nearly two hours without much by way of an actual storyline, running on empty for what feels like ages after its mojo finally hits its stride.
But like in most Altman films, we are helpless to resisting its many subversions. How its leading lady, played here by a rollicking Jennifer Jason Leigh, tries desperately to be a cheap version of Jean Harlow but ends up looking like a platinum haired rascal with rotten teeth. How its villain (Harry Belafonte) avoids the camp of the era and goes for mystical, how the damsel in distress (Miranda Richardson) is a wealthy opium addict without much spunk, how the man who should be the hero (Dermot Mulroney) is nothing more than a fragment of a specimen, genuinely lightheaded when he should be scrappy.
If these characters were played by actors of the respective time, without Altman mockery saddling them, we can envision Kansas City, aside from Harlow as Leigh’s central moll, being headlined by George Raft, Myrna Loy, and maybe even Dick Powell. But Altman’s twisting of stock characters and star personalities makes the film feel like something the studio never would have released, being too cynical and self-deprecating to keep audiences of the Great Depression out of their overwhelming misery. It is a fascinating, though very minor, Altman project, an exercise of his talents not necessarily in the mood to show off.
And considering his past films, which often made use of massive ensemble casts or simple storylines with a hell of a lot of metaphors behind them to make them feel heavy, Kansas City is unusually to-the-point. In the movie, Leigh portrays Blondie O’Hara, a hard-bitten gun moll who kidnaps a millionaire’s wife (Miranda Richardson) in hopes to make a trade. Her husband, Johnny (Mulroney), you see, is being held up at crime boss Seldom Seen’s (Belafonte) jazz joint, and she believes that her victim’s spouse (Michael Murphy) can free him, his financial standing potentially impactful.
But none of these characters are very smart, except for Seldom Seen, whose self-possession is so intimidating you might call him a guru of sin. So begins a night of madcap messiness, Blondie causing most of the trouble with her inability to be a halfway decent kidnapper.
Kansas City is Robert Altman’s thirty-first film, and refreshing is how he clearly is willing to take as many risks as a young filmmaker would, never settling in a specific mindset only because it doesn’t excite him. He could make films like Short Cuts for the rest of his career, but to do so would be predictable. This film works as a sort of breather from the epic, not a masterpiece nor a failure — just a confirmation that Altman never would, and never will, be a filmmaker confined to a specific stylistic standpoint. B-