Here is a film about the horrors of rules and regulations. One example is the modern legal system – a system designed to protect the innocent, but frequently abused by those who are wicked. Pacific Heights tells the story of a the world's worst tenant; a man who cheats his way into a new home and then proceeds to use every legal loophole at his disposal to make life a living hell for his landlords. When the landlords react emotionally and attempt to evict him, they only manage to tighten the noose around their own their own necks. Another example is modern corporate policy, which is savagely abused by one character for the purposes of putting another character in prison under false pretenses. Slowly but surely, the film suggests, we have lawyered our society into oblivion. On top of that, the film metaphorically foreshadows the collapse of the housing market, as a couple takes out an ill-advised loan that they can't really afford and face crippling consequences as a result.
Okay, the movie is really a surface-deep thriller spotlighting a sub-Straw Dogs conflict between a happy married couple and a sneering villain, but I found it difficult to keep my mind from wandering. There's nothing wrong with surface-deep thrillers, but Pacific Heights isn't genuinely thrilling often enough to provide a satisfactory viewing experience. There are memorable moments, impressive isolated elements and a fun supporting performance, but too much is too vanilla.
The movie opens with a gratuitous sex scene, which I believe was a studio-mandated contractual obligation for all R-rated thrillers made between 1987-1994. The participants in the aforementioned scene are Carter Hayes (Michael Keaton, Batman) and Ann Miller (Beverly D'Angelo, National Lampoon's Vacation). Alas, their bliss is interrupted by a couple of tough guys, both of whom proceed to beat the living daylights out of Carter. Why were they beating him up, exactly? The movie puts a pin in that question and proceeds.
We now shift focus to Patty Palmer (Melanie Griffith, Body Double) and Drake Goodman (Matthew Modine, Full Metal Jacket), a happy couple who have just secured a loan on a lovely home in San Francisco. The house is far too expensive for Patty and Drake, but they plan to make up the difference by renting the home's pair of first-floor apartments. One apartment is rented by Toshio (Mako, Conan the Barbarian) and Mira Watanabe (Nobu McCarthy, The Karate Kid, Part II), a lovely Japanese couple entering their twilight years. The other is rented by Carter, who reveals himself to be anything but lovely.
Carter, it seems, is a con man of sorts. He smooth-talks his way into a rental agreement without undergoing a proper background check, offering a story about working for a trust with all sorts of privacy clauses in place. He promises to wire rent money for the first six months, and when the rent money never arrives, he proceeds to blame Patty and Drake's bank. Soon the increasingly irritable landlords (who desperately need those rent payments to keep their heads above water financially) are trying to remove Carter from the premises, and Carter is responding with an increasingly nasty (and even dangerous) series of clever countermeasures. One of them involves thousands of cockroaches.
The basic “good landlords vs. evil tenant” premise is kinda fun, I suppose, mostly thanks to Keaton's wickedly engaging performance. His character doesn't make much sense, really (the ultimate explanation of who he is and why he's doing what he's doing is preposterously convoluted), but Keaton proves willing to adapt to the film's increasing silliness: early on, he's low-key and quietly menacing, while later he's frothing at the mouth and shouting kooky monologues. Keaton ensures that every scene featuring Carter is at least moderately enjoyable, which is almost certainly why everybody remembers Pacific Heights as, “that movie where Michael Keaton plays a bad guy.”
The thing is, there isn't nearly enough of Michael Keaton playing a bad guy in Pacific Heights. A surprisingly huge portion of the movie is devoted to tedious, blandly-staged scenes in which Patty and Drake discuss the fine points of tenant's rights laws with attorneys, police officers, friends and others. Griffith and Modine are capable of being engaging in the right roles, but both are terminally dull here. Additionally, there's almost zero chemistry between them, meaning that the film's attempt to show the toxic effect Carter has on their marriage never really registers. The movie demonstrates a surprisingly nasty side as it enters its second half, as all parties involved demonstrate a willingness to toss aside legal maneuvers and fight the old-fashioned way. Alas, unlike the aforementioned Straw Dogs, Pacific Heights only employs violence because it's the third act and third acts demand violence.
I'm not crazy about the movie overall, but it's worth noting that the whole thing is highlighted by an exceptional Hans Zimmer score. It's one of the composer's most distinctive and inventive efforts; blending sultry, noirish saxophones with threatening banjos. Yes, threatening banjos. Steve Martin once claimed that the banjo was an inherently happy instrument, and Zimmer's score plays like a persuasive rebuttal to that notion. Speaking of which, Martin's banjo music is worth seeking out, too. He's one of the rare actors whose musical career is actually worth taking seriously, and Martin has a deep appreciation of both bluegrass and... ah, but now my mind is wandering again.
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 102 minutes
Release Year: 1990