***½/**** Image A+ Sound A+ Extras B-
starring Samuel L. Jackson, Ann Magnuson, Aunjanue Ellis, Tamara Tunie
screenplay by George Dawes Green, based on his novel
directed by Kasi Lemmons
by Walter Chaw A strange mixture of Shine, Basquiat, Angel Heart, and Grant Morrison & Dave McKean's graphic novel Arkham Asylum, The Caveman's Valentine is a feverish tale of a homeless madman-cum-detective who, on the morning of February 14th, discovers a "valentine" just outside his New York cave: one of Ella Fitzgerald's strange fruit, stuck in the crotch of a tree--a young male model murdered and frozen to a branch. Believing at first that his imagined nemesis Stuyvesant, who shoots evil rays into his mind from atop the Chrysler Building, is responsible for the murder, Romulus (Samuel L. Jackson) is put on the trail of an avant-garde photographer in the Mapplethorpe mold, David Leppenraub (Colm Feore). His minor sleuthing interrupted by the occasional delusional fit and bouts with an ecstasy of creation (Romulus was a brilliant Julliard-trained pianist prior to his psychosis), Romulus uncovers clues and harasses suspects on his way to convincing his police-woman daughter (Aunjanue Ellis) that even though he's a nut, that doesn't mean he can't solve a high-profile society murder.
Every moment an exhausting workshop of ideas (and every character the same), The Caveman's Valentine is a concept so "high concept" that it suddenly became clear to me that the film fits into the comic-book genre of entertainment, with Romulus's "Caveman" a slightly more mundane version of Todd McFarlane's urban noir hero, Spawn. With a long-vanished wife (Tamara Tunie) acting as a spiritual guide, the occasional social caste commentary, the secret base in a cave, a divergent genius personality with a network of informants and supporters, and a wickedly colourful arch-enemy, the film piles on the lurid comic book details and dizzying slapdash colours to such a lavish extent that I was vaguely surprised that the blue police cars weren't inscribed with "Gotham PD."
That being said, The Caveman's Valentine can only really succeed as a heroic fantasy, a Frank Miller graphic novel that has the audacity to portray the blood staining a field of virgin snow expanding to form the shape of a heart. The difficulties with the film spring from the misunderstanding that it somehow adheres to the conventions of a thriller or a police procedural when, in fact, The Caveman's Valentine is a superhero fable that takes on the cause of the homeless (again like McFarlane's Spawn) while attacking the entrenched ruling classes in government and the arts. It is no small detail that our hero, Romulus, is not only named for a member of the ruling class who lived his life (in legend) without knowledge of his royal birth, but also that our Romulus has turned his back on the comforts of the literati in favour of a mystical existence living in a cave in a park. In the Romulus mythology, signs of Romulus's royal blood are brought by twelve vultures, while in the film, the call to action for our hero comes in the form of not the carrion birds, but the carrion itself.
Whether or not Romulus of The Caveman's Valentine will found a nation or, in the case of novelist George Dawes Green (upon whose novel his own screenplay is based), a franchise, the fact remains that The Caveman's Valentine is easily the most misunderstood film of 2001 thus far. Along with M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable (also, interestingly, starring Jackson), it's a mature cinematic extrapolation of the graphic-novel format, which has, since Miller's seminal The Dark Knight Returns, redefined the comic medium as one suitable for mature ruminations on psychologically sticky topics. Readers of Sam Keith's brilliant "The Maxx" comic series (or of MTV's short-lived animated adaptation of the same) are already familiar with the idea of a homeless man placed in the position of knight errant and king of his own twisted demesne. The failure of both "The Maxx" TV show and of The Caveman's Valentine (while not forgetting the initial backlash against Unbreakable) suggests that the public may not be ready for America's surprising contributions to dark fantasy.
Luxuriantly-lit, brashly-saturated, and comic-panel framed with a virtuoso grace by cinematographer Amy Vincent (Death in Venice, CA), all while inhabiting Robin Standefer's (Practical Magic) mesmerizing sets, The Caveman's Valentine is an unremittingly gorgeous film. Kasi Lemmons, following up her brilliant 1997 debut, Eve's Bayou, which played on similar themes of manufactured realities and mysticism, fulfills much of her immense promise with a tale of seraphs and lost boys, artists and suffering. The Caveman's Valentine is an elegant and piquant expression of hope for justice in a tilted landscape. Clearly not for every taste, the picture, when approached with the correct paradigm, is one of the most stunning and intensely fascinating movies of the year: a redefinition of the hero archetype for a post-modern audience with urine-stained wool trench coats in place of blue tights and red capes. The Caveman's Valentine is a fine and a courageous film, crazy enough to suggest that the delirious yammering of an idiot savant is the best and truest paladin of order in the chaos of Eliot's rat's alley wasteland.
Universal's 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is a showcase piece for the DVD format. It handles darks and lights with the same agility, capturing the steaming nights of a New York winter with as much alacrity as the interiors of Romulus's sepia-tinged hallucinations of moth-seraphs. Any one frame of The Caveman's Valentine is an example of DVD's ability to separate shadows, digitally eliminate color bleed, and present an image as sharp and evocative as the artist must have intended. For the disappointment of the film's box-office and critical reception, it is all the more impressive that Universal has provided such a stunning and faithful version of the movie on home video. Similarly, the 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks are all-engulfing and employed to tremendous effect. Terence Blanchard's epic score soars through the rear channels while Romulus's vocal hallucinations swell and bounce from right to left rear and the middle, creating an ambient noise wall of sibilant whispers that overwhelms with its evocation of madness.
Director Kasi Lemmons and editor Terilyn Shropshire offer a feature commentary that is, sadly, indicated by long silences and somewhat banal observations of the "so and so designed that, isn't it neat?" variety. It is mildly interesting to hear how Lemmons came to be involved in the film (Jackson, after working with Lemmons on Eve's Bayou, owned the rights to the novel and requested the director), but the same information is provided in a throwaway production-notes feature. For a movie as thorny and fascinating as The Caveman's Valentine, one would hope for a commentary to provide more insight into placing the film's historical and genre context.
An extended deleted scenes section features an entire episode involving a weary bartender that is missed in the film as an extension of the hero/noir motif, as well as a brief scene inside the apartment of a suspect that clarifies an all-important revelation. Although the elisions are long and welcome additions, I would have appreciated a better context of where some of them fit within the narrative and the rationalizations for their removal. A lovely and evocative theatrical trailer, the usual cast and crew biographies, and an inexplicable "recommendations" menu showing a picture gallery of cover art for assorted Universal DVD releases, rounds off the disc. Originally published: July 26, 2001.