Lone Star Cinema: D.O.A.
Had the stylish thriller D.O.A. been more plausible, it might be more than a footnote in the history of Austin film.
Released in 1988, the murder mystery had much promise. After all, it was a loose remake of an iconic Fifties whodunit of the same title. Its leads were Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan, two sexy Hollywood darlings on the verge of megastardom. At the helm were Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton, co-directors of the innovative, critically acclaimed and quintessentially Eighties TV series The Max Headroom Show.
But for all its potential, the movie D.O.A. is mostly forgettable mix of crime thriller clichés and farfetched plotting. It's a watchable bit of neo-noir, but nothing more.
D.O.A. is the story of Dexter Cornell (Quaid), a cynical English professor and once-promising novelist who barely conceals his contempt for his job and students. He leads an unfulfilling life of halfhearted teaching, boozing with his colleague Hal (Daniel Stern) and dealing with his crumbling marriage to his wife, Gail (Jane Kaczmarek).
After a very bad day when Gail hands him divorce papers, Dexter goes on a bender, culminating in an awkward morning after when he wakes up in the dorm room of one of his students, Sydney Fuller (Ryan). So hung over he can barely function, Dexter visits his doctor, who runs a few tests and delivers the bad news at the heart of D.O.A.: Sometime the night before, someone poisoned Dexter -- and he has about 36 hours to live. He decides to spend his final hours finding the culprit and solving his own murder.
Not a bad setup at all -- but as Dexter races against the clock to find his killer, D.O.A. becomes a parade of overcooked noir conventions and preposterous plot twists. Among them are a femme fatale (Charlotte Rampling as a wealthy, steely-eyed widow), a lethal love triangle, plenty of foreshadowing and red herrings, a narrow escape from a nail gun-wielding killer and a car chase ending in a tar pit. (A tar pit? D.O.A. was filmed mostly in Austin, but definitely wasn't set here. Its setting is unnamed.) Oh yeah, there also is a torrid romance between Dexter and Sydney -- because, you know, Meg Ryan.
D.O.A.'s underlying idea is intriguing, so it's a shame the story built on this premise is so unsubtle and unbelievable. (Among other things, Dexter has an amazing amount of stamina for a guy who will die in a few hours. Despite having a deadly toxin in his vital organs, he still manages to do a lot of running and climbing, survive two more attempts to kill him and make passionate, doomed love to Sydney.) The lack of character development also is disappointing; it's minimal for Dexter and almost nonexistent for the other characters, giving us little reason to care what happens to the luckless professor or anyone else in the film.
So, what makes D.O.A. watchable? It moves quickly enough to counter many of its flaws, with plenty of well-choreographed action. It's a very stylish affair, with great (if sometimes comically overdone) noir visuals. There is some smart humor, most of it thanks to the self-deprecating Dexter. ("Nobody plots to kill an English professor. We just don't inspire that kind of passion," he says in one of his more frustrated moments.) And anyone with Eighties nostalgia will enjoy the big hair, MTV vibe, thumping soundtrack and ubiquitous bit players of the era (Brion James, Jack Kehoe, Christopher Neame) in minor roles.
Not surprisingly, D.O.A. opened to mixed reviews (Siskel and Ebert gave it two thumbs up, but mostly for its style). Audiences were just as ambivalent; the film earned just $12 million in its short theatrical run.
D.O.A. is available on DVD and Blu-ray. (Curiously, the Blu-ray is far less expensive.) Both are bare-bones disks with no extras other than French dubbing and English/Spanish subtitles.
Austin/Texas connections: D.O.A. was filmed in Austin and San Marcos. Austin locations include the Travis County Courthouse, State Capitol, St. Edward's University, Sixth Street and Congress Avenue. Dennis Quaid is from Houston. Several Texan actors appear in minor roles, including former Austinite John Hawkes and, of course, Marco Perella. The band in a bar scene is Timbuk3, an Austin fave of the Eighties and Nineties.