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Movie Review : Morrissey Finds Humor In A Gotham Drug War

February 12, 1986|KEVIN THOMAS | Times Staff Writer

Leave it to Paul Morrissey to find humor in a lethal drug war in Manhattan's Lower East Side.

In "Mixed Blood" (at the Los Feliz and Monica 4-Plex), Morrissey has made his most outrageously effective comedy since his "Trash" and "Heat" for Andy Warhol 15 years ago. Imagine--if you can--a low-budget sendup of "Oliver Twist," "West Side Story" and "White Heat" combined, and you'll have a rough idea of what it's like.

Not for Morrissey the earnest, socially conscious drama of the ills and injustices of Latino ghetto existence, but rather a scabrous satire of street life, keyed to an infectious salsa beat and incorporating melodramatic plotting, ultra-violence, nonstop gutter language and a campy heroine. Yet the matter-of-fact, ruthlessly unsentimental tone Morrissey brings to his lurid, brutal make-believe points up the sheer absurdity of real-life evil in a way a more conventional film never could. In short, he accomplishes the artist's primary and invaluable task of inviting us to see the familiar in a fresh way--while gleefully entertaining us.

"Mixed Blood" is not quite like any other film, not even in the outre Morrissey canon, and it could be a terrific turn-off for those who take it literally rather than allegorically; what its story implies, not the story itself, is what is to be taken seriously. Be warned that even though the violence is of the make-believe Grand Guignol variety, it is still quite graphic.

Marilia Pera, unforgettable as the worn prostitute of Hector Babenco's "Pixote," plays a fiery Brazilian drug dealer who's emigrated to Manhattan and is determined to grab her share of the business--and then some. This triggers a bloody power struggle between her boys, the "Maceteros," and the "Master Dancers" led by the cold-blooded Juan the Bullet (Angel David), who declares war by dropping a 13-year-old Macetero off a building.

Pera's Ruby La Punta (or "The Spike")--you could pay with your life if you drop the "n" in "punta" in her presence--is part Fagin, part Carmen Miranda. She operates out of a seedy loft, which is also home for her and her grown son (Richard Ulacia), whose head is as thick as his biceps--and who still sleeps in his mother's bed. Pera's Dragon Lady performance is as daring as the film itself--an instance of a remarkable actress spoofing her character in a throwaway manner so that it will blend with a cast largely composed of sometimes awkward non-professionals.

Her Maceteros are all under age so that they might avoid the full brunt of the law. Ruby can scream "I want killers! I want killers!" and mean it, yet pride herself on giving food and shelter to her urchins. Typical of the film's savage irony is that these kids probably wouldn't otherwise have a home. On its most serious level, "Mixed Blood" creates a totally corrupt world without viable alternatives to a life of crime.

What Morrissey consequently reveals is a life style with the most darkly comic juxtapositions. Killers talk about going for groceries or to the laundry while plotting vengeance and murder. Ruby proclaims that she's running a "clean" operation: None of her kids who fill plastic bags with heroin or cocaine touch the stuff, no sirree! Amid the carnage, a cop-turned-criminal speaks of his child's confirmation and his membership in his neighborhood block committee; escalating war doesn't stop Ruby from throwing a party to celebrate her grandchild's christening--and she even sings Miranda's famous "Tico-Tico."

Among the guests at this party is the beautiful, cynical blond girlfriend (Linda Kerridge, in a shrewdly underplayed performance) of the ghetto's key drug supplier, and it is Kerridge, in her attraction to Ulacia, who will become the film's deadliest catalyst. Because of the way Ulacia responds to her, struggling to think for himself for the first time in his life, Morrissey can dare to end "Mixed Blood" (Times-rated Mature for strong violence and equally strong language) on its single note of pathos, with a glimpse of Ulacia's face as it registers the sadness of loss. In that final instant all the deliberate travesty that has gone before suddenly seems real.

With "Mixed Blood" is Rick Sykes' "'Hotel November," which in eight minutes manages to evoke the agony of Vietnam, both in the trenches and on the home front, in a remarkable feat of artistic economy.

'MIXED BLOOD'

A Sara Film-Cinevista release. Executive producer Alain Sarde/Sara Films. Producers Steven Fierberg, Antoine Gannage. Writer-director Paul Morrissey. Camera Stefan Zapasnik. Original music Andy (Sugarcoated) Hernandez. Art director Steven McCabe. Film editor Scott Vickery. With Marilia Pera, Richard Ulacia, Linda Kerridge, Geraldine Smith, Rodney Harvey, Angel David, Pedro Sanchez, Ulrich Beer, Marcelino Rivera, Yukio Yamamoto, Susan Blond.

Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.

Times-rated: Mature.

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