Night at the Golden Eagle
Grade: A-
Year: 2002
Director: Adam Rifkin
Writer: Adam Rifkin
Genre: Drama
Rated: R
By Scott Spicciati

Filmmaker Adam Rifkin always had a passion for making independent cinema, and after the completion of his mainstream comedy "Detroit Rock City" (unseen by me), he went back to his low-budget roots and made "Night at the Golden Eagle," a dark and gritty film about two elderly men preparing to put their criminal records behind them and start new in Las Vegas.

The movie opens in a California prison where Tommy (Donnie Montemarano) has just completed his seven year sentence and is greeted by his lifelong friend Mic (Vinny Argiro) on the other side of the gate. When they reunite, Mic explains that while Tommy was serving his sentence, he got his act cleaned up, ended his mischievous lifestyle and even got a legitimate job to pay the bills. He goes on to say he bought two bus tickets to Las Vegas where he hopes he and Tommy will become successful blackjack dealers and live it large in Sin City. Tommy isn't moved by this proposition but when asked he ever wants to go back to prison, which is where he will likely end up for recidivating, he reluctantly accepts the offer.

The bus is scheduled to pick them up the following morning at 7 AM, meaning Tommy and Mic will have to spend one last night in the deteriorating slums at the Golden Eagle Hotel, home to has-beens, deadbeats and prostitutes. Unfortunately as they soon find out, just one night at the Golden Eagle is all it takes for trouble to rear its ugly head.

The hotel is constantly visited by prostitutes with the two primary residents being Sally (Ann Magnuson) and Amber (Natasha Lyonne). Together they pitch their services to potential clients and hope to score with them in Room 2B which essentially belongs to them for that purpose. The girls are managed by Rodan (Vinnie Jones), a seedy and manipulative pimp always looking for new talent.

When Mic and Tommy approach the hotel where they plan to spend one last night together in the slums, the hookers take notice. Mic unwisely leaves Tommy alone to go collect his last paycheck, and when he returns he finds Amber's lifeless body on the floor at the foot of the bed. "It wasn't my fault!" Tommy exclaims.

Stuck in this new predicament, Mic and Tommy must now figure out what they're going to do if anything with the decaying corpse as their promising future in Vegas now no longer seems certain. The tension builds as Mic and Tommy also have to figure out a way to leave the hotel without being noticed. They run into several problems along the way, specifically the weary desk clerk (Miles Dougal) who's been asking Mic to borrow money and would be the first person to discover the body. He also knows where they're going and could lead the authorities if it ever became known that Amber died in Mic's room at the hands of either him or Tommy.

The cast bill is surprisingly stocked with talent; from a quick cameo by James Caan as a prison warden to the legendary Rock and Roll Hall-of-Famer Sam Moore and tap-dancing legend Fayard Nicholas as two residents of the hotel. The scenes with Moore and Nicholas are important because they serve as comic relief segments in between the two separate stories that make up the plot; Mic and Tommy trying to hide a dead body, and the inauguration of an innocent 15-year-old girl into Rodan's lineup of prostitutes.

The girl's name is Loriann, a shy, domestically abused teenager who fled a troubled home with naïve dreams of becoming an actress. Of course such dreams will never be achieved while working for Rodan, who instills in her false security and empty promises as he coaxes her into society's most degrading occupation.

Loriann is played by Nicole Jacobs, a first time actress who was discovered while eating lunch at a Los Angeles restaurant with her mother at the time when she was approached by Rifkin. For a first role, the part of Loriann is a demanding performance and Jacobs handles it surprisingly well. She's got the face for the usual teenage fluff films about fame and boys; the genre you find icons like Hilary Duff, Amanda Bynes and now Lindsay Lohan dominating. And perhaps Jacobs is too good looking for us to believe the only outlet in the entertainment industry she can work is the "art form" of prostitution, as it's described by her disgustingly sweaty pimp, Rodan, but her strong performance wins the day.

Loriann is to shadow and be trained by Sally whom at no point questions the whereabouts of her partner Amber. Maybe she just doesn't care. Sally's a hard woman who is all about the business, but when given the responsibly of preparing Loriann for a life of decadence, she takes on a motherly role and will eventually try to protect her. The fate of this young girl is perhaps more pressing and important than the outcome of our main characters, Mic and Tommy.

The overall presentation of the film is on track but if there was a category that represented the film's low-budget independent feel, it's the sub-par acting. Rifkin made several risks when casting his characters, specifically by making his leads two elderly men whereas most films of this genre sport young, hip, trendy and fast-talking characters. Montemarano never acted a day in his life before reading the script, and it shows in many of the dialogue-heavy scenes. However he has very good chemistry with Argiro and its ultimately convincing. Of course it doesn't hurt that the two have been lifelong friends in real life, another smart move by Rifkin.

If nothing else, the cinematography is first-rate. Francesco Varese's unrelenting camera magnifies every unpleasantly gritty detail. When the characters complain of the heat we can actually see it. This is the one aspect of the film that feels mainstream but in a good way. Rifkin and Varese liberally utilize stylish camera pans and angles unseen in the classic drama films that Rifkin has been inspired by over the years of watching movies. From the way a bill floats in slow-motion toward the stained carpet of the aging hotel to Mic's downright creepy hallucination of Amber, the film never lacks style.

The most fascinating shot of the movie is of Loriann as she watches her "mentor" Sally perform services for a client from inside a closet. As the temperature rises we see Sally and her client at work through the reflection projecting off Loriann's glazed eye. Now with a better understanding of what her life will be like, the tears swell up and a side shot shows the sweat roll off her face to conclude a very powerful scene.

"Night at the Golden Eagle" is just a few steps away from being a perfect film, as the conclusion is slightly underwhelming compared to the grand setup. Perhaps it ends too abruptly after dishing us a major plot revelation, and as a result the impact of the movie is slightly weakened. We don't get the opportunity to absorb the climax before it ends, so by the time the credits roll the audience will likely feel incomplete.

But I must not fault the film heavily for its rushed ending because the purpose of Rifkin's story isn't about resolutions, but instead the opposite, and Rifkin's bold desire to tell it from that angle should be commended. If you ever wondered where the people who don't "make it" go after they've failed, or where society's unwanted leftovers collect, or where those with potential ultimately find themselves on the wrong side of fate's door…look no further than the Golden Eagle Hotel.

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